“All life is here, and it ‘aint too pretty,” said the Walsall fan on the train from Birmingham New Street. “We’ve got everything…railway lines, canals, rivers, motorways and industrial units. Wonderful.”
He was describing Walsall’s home since 1990, one of the first new grounds to spring up post-Taylor Report. The stadium itself is perfectly acceptable and functional, but with the greatest respect to the good people of the Birmingham conurbation, the location could be better. Unfortunately, the Bescot Stadium, or the Banks’s Stadium as it is now called, appears to be sitting beneath a motorway, and but for a few yards, it would certainly be in the shadow of the M6.
Walsall are, effectively, Birmingham’s fourth club after Aston Villa, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion. Students of the game will know that they are the “Saddlers” and that in 1933, they pulled off one of the FA Cup’s greatest shocks in beating the mighty Arsenal in the FA Cup. What else have they done? Walsall are one of those clubs that have never won anything significant, although they did reach the last four of the Football League Cup in 1984, losing to Liverpool over two legs (after again beating Arsenal on the way).
So they’re “real” supporters are the patrons of the Banks’s Stadium and can be accused of jumping on a bandwagon. But there’s not too many of them – in 2013-14, the average gate at Walsall was 4,807 which is somewhat lower than the 30-year average of around 7,000 and way below the 12,000 average of the early 1960s.
But when Game of the People visited Walsall, the League One leaders Bristol City were in town and they usually travel mob-handed, so the crowd swelled to 5,574, considerably up on the 3,741 that attended the last home game against Doncaster Rovers. Rumours went round the ground that David Moyes, the former Manchester United and Everton manager, was in the ground and true enough, he could be spotted sitting amongst the great and the good of Walsall.
The Saddlers were sitting in 17th position in League One before the game, but City were five points clear at the top and unbeaten in 10 games. Nobody seemed to expect Walsall to get anything out of this game at all, least of all the large travelling contingent.
In fact, the way the game started, that view looked fairly well accurate. Bristol City, looking like Wimbledon ball-boys in their purple and green strip (striking but where were the strawberries and cream?), took the lead after 11 minutes. The impressive Luke Ayling sent over a long cross to the edge of the penalty area and Joe Bryan controlled it before shooting low into the net. “That’ll be the first of many,” said the Walsall wag sitting at the back of the Community Stand. Actually, for a while, that prediction looked a good one as City wasted a few good chances.
If their pocket-sized striker, Kieran Agard, had been more focused, City would have run up a comfortable lead, but he was a yellow card waiting to happen and so it proved when he was booked for preventing a free-kick from being taken. He was described as a “livewire” in the Walsall programme and he seems to have something given his goalscoring this season. But he looked like the sort of player who may have discipline problems.
Almost on half-time, Walsall had their best chance of the game, Anthony Forde’s shot being spectacularly tipped over by City goalkeeper Frank Fielding. This incident hinted that Walsall were coming out of their shell and the second period proved that as they dominated possession and took the game to the league leaders.
They had a second wind on the hour when Billy Clifford came on for Reece Flanagan, a substitution that seemed to be popular with the locals. “You should have done that an hour ago,” said the Walsall Wag. “We could have told you it wasn’t going to work.” I don’t know what Flanagan had done to this chap, or his friends, come to that, but he wasn’t getting much support.
Walsall finally got their equaliser with five minutes remaining, and it was a scorcher. Romaine Sawyers, a persistent fellow, sent a curling shot into the top corner of Fielding’s goal to send the crowd into raptures. It earned his side a point they deserved against a profligate Bristol City side that seemed to take its foot off the pedal. “We didn’t play well enough and we were not ruthless in front of goal,” said their manager Steve Cotterill. The last time I saw Cotterill I was interviewing him when he was Cheltenham Town manager back in the late 1990s. He’s come a long way since then.
The Bristol fans had a long way to go home, and as they lined-up on the platform at Bescot Stadium station, they engaged in a game of “sticks and stones” with the Walsall supporters on the opposite platform. Although quite a few invited their “enemies” outside for a fight (I recall in the 1970s Bristol City having a bit of a “firm”), the exchanges were purely verbal – thankfully.
As for Walsall, they had earned a good point against a team with ambitions of a place in the Championship. They couldn’t resist taunting the visitors: “1-0 and you f***** it up.” They did indeed.