The Story of the Saddlers...
The Saddlers have enjoyed a rich history since the two leading clubs in Walsall, namely Walsall Swifts and Walsall Town, merged to form Walsall Town Swifts in 1888.
Becoming Walsall in 1895, there have been plenty of highs and lows over the years, which all come together to make up our colourful past...
Both Walsall Town (founded 1877) and Walsall Swifts (formed 1879) had been in existence for several years before, in 1888, they decided to end their rivalry and amalgamate, becoming Walsall Town Swifts.
The new club got off to a rousing start; their opening game was the Birmingham Charity Cup final against Aston Villa and over 500 Walsall fans made the journey to Perry Barr for the game, which ended all square after extra-time. The first combined Walsall side contained five former Town players - Jones, Lee, Shaw, Cope and Wykes - and six ex-Swifts - Tracey, Reynolds, Morley, Morris, Tapper and Arrowsmith.
Sadly, the replay was fixed for Small Heath or Perry Barr again and, after arguing with some justification that it should have been staged on their own Chuckery Ground, Walsall Town Swifts withdrew from the competition and the trophy went to Aston Villa.
Although they didn't gain a place among the 12 founder members of the Football League in 1888, Walsall Town Swifts beat Burnley - one of the selected 12 - in the first home game of that season. A striker by the name of Sammy Holmes achieved the distinction of scoring the first-ever goal for Town Swifts.
Defender Albert Aldridge was twice capped for England during that first season, in which another notable event came in the shape of an FA Cup tie against Wolves at the latter's Dudley Road ground. Despite an early goal, the Town Swifts crashed to a 6-1 defeat.
For the next few seasons the club competed with varying degrees of success in the Football Alliance of that time, but they were natural choices for one of the places in the new Football League second division when it was formed in 1892. The other sides were Small Heath (now Birmingham City), Sheffield United, Darwen, Grimsby, Ardwick (now Manchester City), Burton Swifts, Northwich Victoria, Bootle, Lincoln, Crewe and Burslem Port Vale.
The first Football League game at The Chuckery Ground was against Darwen, the Town Swifts line-up being: Hawkins, Withington, Pinches, Forsyth, Whittick, Robinson, Marshall, Holmes, Turner, Pangbourn, Gray. Our first Football League goal was netted by Gray, but we still went down to a 2-1 defeat.
After three rather mediocre seasons we failed to gain re-election in 1895, but a year later we were back with a vengeance, beating Wolves in the final of the Birmingham Senior Cup and Aston Villa in the final of the Birmingham Charity Cup, just a few days after Villa had completed a Football League and FA Cup-winning double. What's more, the goals that Copeland and J. Aston scored in our 2-1 win were the first scored by visiting players there.
The finances of the club were shaky at that time and, interestingly, Vice Presidents' tickets at a guinea each were made available the following season.
Our best season in those early second division days was 1898/99 when we managed to secure a sixth place berth. Four more points would have taken us into Division One, but just two years later we failed to secure re-election and had to face some 20 seasons out of the Football League. This seemed particularly hard as we had finished above both Stockport and Burton, but our re-election case was not helped by the fact there had been financial problems and the FA had taken a close look at one or two of the transactions carried out.
Symptomatic of the financial problems had been the swapping about between grounds. The club had started life at the Chuckery Ground, but in 1893 moved to a new ground in West Bromwich Road. Three years later, the Hillary Street ground (later known as Fellows Park) was opened, but problems over tenure led to a return to West Bromwich Road in 1900.
The team were playing at West Bromwich Road when, in 1901, they moved into the Midland League. Although they could finish no higher than fifth, they did gain a notable win over first division Burnley in the first round of the FA Cup.
Financially, things were still at a low ebb and, in the hope of improving gates through more local interest, the move was made to the Birmingham League in 1903, the year we also moved back to Hillary Street. Expenses were now lower and matches against the reserve teams of Aston Villa, West Brom, Small Heath and Wolves provided a certain level of interest.
Though Walsall never managed to top the table, they did win the Keys Cup in 1914/15 as the best placed of the non-reserve sides. We also earned a little more FA Cup glory in 1911/12 with wins over Stoke and Accrington.
Football in Walsall was suspended from 1915 until 1919 because of World War I, but within two years of its resumption, Walsall - who had decided to drop the Town Swifts label some years earlier - became founder members of the new third division (north).
We ran into form too, and in our second season ended up in third spot, just four points short of promotion. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise that we did not go up as Nelson, who pipped us, stayed up only one season and then went out of existence altogether.
In the course of the next six seasons in Division Three (North), one re-election application was survived and then came four seasons in Division Three (South). During that period, Walsall played before a crowd of 74,600 in an FA Cup fourth-round tie at Villa Park, the game having been transferred there from Fellows Park in order to accommodate more spectators - although thousands were still locked out when the gates were closed. It remains the biggest-ever crowd that a Walsall team have played in front of, and despite losing 3-1, Walsall won many friends by giving a brave display. Goalkeeper Fred Biddlestone impressed the home side so much they signed him shortly afterwards.
In 1931, Walsall were back in Division Three (North) and, despite an undistinguished league record, the greatest win in the club's history was achieved on 14th January 1933 when first division champions Arsenal were beaten 2-0. What a great day it was for chairman H. L. Fellows, who had kept the club afloat financially and after whom the Hillary Street ground had by this time been renamed. Happily, some of the 11,150 who saw Gilbert Alsop and Bill Sheppard get the vital goals in the second half are still alive and still take great pleasure in reflecting back on the game.
The last few seasons before World War II were generally a struggle, with the last two ending in re-election applications as the club battled it out at the wrong end of the third division (south).
Yet as so often has been the case, the club's fortunes were brightened by an FA Cup run. Carlisle, Clapton Orient, Newport and Notts County all bit the dust as Walsall reached the fifth round for the first time in 1938/39 before finally bowing out 3-1 at Huddersfield.
With the outbreak of war, the Football League programme was abandoned just three games into 1939/40, but the flag was kept flying at Fellows Park as Walsall competed in the various regional competitions on more or less equal terms with their first and second division Midland neighbours.
Among the guests who wore the claret and blue of the Saddlers at that time were such illustrious names as Irish international Peter Doherty and prolific Manchester United striker Jack Rowley. In fact, Rowley scored four times in a game on no fewer than four occasions in 1940/41. The scorelines for that first season were quite remarkable, with wins by an 11-4 margin against Notts County and 10-3 against West Brom.
Then, early in 1943/44, we pulled off one of the outstanding recoveries in our history. Four goals down at half-time, we rallied to draw 4-4 with Aston Villa on their home ground. A crowd of 13,000 were present at this game, but our biggest War-time gate was reserved for the final of the Division Three (South) Cup at the end of 1945/46 when over 20,000 saw us go down 1-0 to Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge. This was a game we could well have won, but at least our progress in the competition showed we had a team capable of holding its own when normal football resumed in August 1946.
With Harry Hibbs as manager we enjoyed two good seasons, finishing in fifth place in 1946/47 and third in 1947/48. Our line-up at that time was arguably as strong as at any period in our history. Dave Massart kicked off the 1947/48 season with a hat-trick in each of the first three home games. Ron Crutchley, Reg Foules and 'Nutty' Newman formed an outstanding middle line and in goal the diminutive Jackie Lewis performed wonders.
For much of that season promotion looked a distinct possibility, but the transfer of Doug Lishman to Arsenal the following summer and the recall of Denis Wilshaw back to Wolves early in 1948/49 ended any immediate hopes of going up.
By 1951/52, the club was embarking on the first of four successive re-election campaigns. Players came and went, particularly during Major Buckley's spell in charge, and no fewer than 42 were used in 1953/54. Happily, the team was well supported during these traumatic seasons, and the crowd figures were a major factor in sufficient re-election votes being cast in the Saddlers' favour.
Eventually the tide turned. Major Buckley's acquisition of Albert McPherson from Stalybridge Celtic and Tony Richards' letter requesting a trial proved to be the first pieces of a promotion jigsaw. Before that, however, Walsall had become founder members of Division Four after finishing in the bottom half of Division Three (South) in 1957/58.
Soon the goals were flowing freely and, after a near miss for promotion in 1958/59, Walsall topped Division Four a season later, netting 102 goals in the process.
Back in the third division we bagged another 98 goals the following season and duly went up again. In the two promotion campaigns, Tony Richards and Colin Taylor totalled 113 goals between them. There were also major contributions from Roy Faulkner, Ken Hodgkisson and Colin Askey, who scored the winner on that memorable night at Shrewsbury in April 1961 in front of a record Gay Meadow crowd.
For a time Walsall matched the best in Division Two, but things went wrong after the long lay-off during the severe winter of 1963. Six successive games were lost as the weather improved, and despite a brave rally in the final few games, we still needed a point from our last game against Charlton in order to stay up. In the event, a serious injury to goalkeeper Alan Boswell was a major factor in a 2-1 defeat that sent us back into the third division.
At one stage in 1963/64 there was serious danger of the Saddlers plummeting to Division Four, but the danger was averted and when Bill Harrison took over the following autumn brighter times loomed again.
Allan Clarke developed into one of the country's top strikers, and for two seasons his dual spearhead with George Kirby gave the fans plenty to cheer about.
In January 1966 there was an incredible 2-0 win at first division Stoke with only ten men after Jimmy McMorran had been badly injured, with substitutes not allowed until the following season. Even after Clarke had moved on to Fulham and Kirby had been released, Walsall still looked odds on for promotion midway through 1967/68. Sadly, though, a five-point lead was lost and the death of Bill Harrison the following summer heralded the end of an era.
The early 1970s saw desperate struggles for financial survival before Ken Wheldon's rescue act late in 1972. By this time, long-serving secretary Ernie Wilson had died and the new set-up of Wheldon (chairman) and John Westmancoat (secretary) made few friends but did put the club on a more even financial keel.
There was some success on the field too, with FA Cup wins over Manchester United and Newcastle in 1975, and Leicester in 1978 to take the club to round five on both occasions.
Alan Buckley proved to be one of the club's most prolific marksman ever, but was never quite the same player after spending most of 1978/79 with Birmingham. After his return he had a number of labels - player-manager, joint-manager, player, manager in that order - but could never quite put together a promotion-winning team.
Rumblings about ground-sharing upset the equilibrium of the early 1980s, but a promotion bid in 1983/84, allied to a remarkable run to the semi-finals of the Milk Cup, raised everybody's spirits for a time. En route to the last four of the League Cup, Alan Buckley’s men defeated Arsenal 2-1 at Highbury, thanks to goals from Mark Rees and Ally Brown, as well as Blackpool (4-3 on agg), Barnsley (3-0 agg), Shrewsbury (2-1) and Rotherham (4-2). The Saddlers faced Liverpool in the semi-finals and held the European heavyweights to a famous 2-2 draw in the first leg at Anfield, with Phil Neal scoring an own goal and super-sub Kevin Summerfield netting with his first touch. Before a crowd of 19,951 at Fellows Park, the Reds won 2-0 in the return leg to secure a 4-2 aggregate victory. Unfortunately, the fade-out in the final two months of that season left everyone deflated and morale was at its lowest in the summer of 1986 when, after another promotion bandwagon had come off the rails, the ground-sharing scheme with Birmingham, that had been denied at the shareholders' meeting a few weeks earlier, was announced.
Happily, the efforts of the ad hoc Action Group, spearheaded by Barrie Blower, won the day and the Terry Ramsden era got underway as the flamboyant London-based businessman literally dropped from the sky into Fellows Park with many grand plans and ideas. One of his first actions was to sack manager Buckley and coach Garry Pendry.
New boss Tommy Coakley, unknown to many people, and his coach Gerry Sweeney, kept their heads and gradually lifted the team from their lowly berth to the very fringes of the play-off zone in 1986/87. Disappointment in not making the play-offs was tempered by a fine FA Cup run; Chesterfield, Port Vale, first division Charlton and Birmingham were beaten before three memorable fifth-round ties with Watford, including that never-to-be-forgotten 4-4 draw at Vicarage Road.
Hopes were high for the club's centenary season, 1987/88, but it began badly both on and off the field with horrific price rises coupled with an opening-day home defeat at the hands of Fulham upsetting supporters a great deal. However, only two of the next 24 matches were lost, thrusting the Saddlers into the promotion frame. There was a slight wobble in mid-season as the goals dried up somewhat, but with David Kelly developing well as a prolific marksman, a place in the play-offs was achieved.
Tommy Coakley’s men beat Notts County 4-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals (3-1 away, 1-1 home) to reach the final, where we faced Bristol City. Despite winning 3-1 at Ashton Gate in the first leg, a 2-0 home reverse ensured the tie finished level on aggregate, meaning a replay was needed. In a unique move, a penalty shootout determined which team would have home advantage; Walsall won 4-2 on spot-kicks and the teams returned to Fellows Park two days later. The Saddlers ran riot in the replay, with a Kelly hat-trick and a Phil Hawker header securing a resounding 4-0 victory and our place in the second tier for the first time in 25 years.
Being only the second manager in the club's history to gain promotion, Coakley's job was made even more difficult at the start of 1988/89 by the August sale of Kelly for a club record £600,000 to West Ham.
A sound start suddenly went wrong as confidence drained from the team, culminating in a run of 15 consecutive league defeats. Coakley lasted until just after Christmas when he was sacked, with John Barnwell appointed his successor, while Ramsden's early enthusiasm had completely waned by this stage.
Barnwell couldn't prevent relegation back to the third division, but among the gloom saw work start on a new £3m stadium in the early part of 1989. Another dreadful season was experienced in 1989/90 - our final campaign at Fellows Park - with the club once more rooted to the foot of the table. Barnwell paid the price for the Saddlers’ wretched form, being sacked in March and replaced by Paul Taylor, who assumed the role of caretaker manager. But the change made little difference, Walsall ending a disastrous 1989/90 campaign ten points from safety.
Notably, the final league game at Fellows Park on 1st May 1990 finished in a 1-1 draw with Rotherham; full-back Andy Dornan was the last Saddlers player to score at our home of 94 years.
A place in Division Four greeted the opening of Bescot Stadium at the start of the 1990/91 campaign. Under Kenny Hibbitt, the Saddlers finished 16th before mustering a 15th-place berth the following year after threatening to challenge for a play-off place at one stage.
It was during this 1991/92 season that Barrie Blower resigned from his position as chairman and was replaced by Jeff Bonser. With between £7,000 and £8,000 being lost per week, the club realised they simply could not afford to rely on football alone for income and so explored other commercial activities such as Sporting Dinners, a Sunday Market and a pop concert featuring the Wonderstuff.
After coming perilously close to death, things on and off the field began to move in the right direction in 1992/93 with a fifth-place finish seeing a play-off place secured, only for Crewe to inflict a 9-3 aggregate defeat to deny the club a trip to Wembley.
A mixed 1993/94 campaign saw a tenth-place finish, missing the play-offs by four points and struggling in front of goal with only 48 goals scored in 46 league games. Attendances continued to steadily rise despite the mediocrity and, with the arrival of the likes of former Chelsea man Kevin Wilson, the 1994/95 season was approached with much excitement and anticipation.
A stuttering start signalled the end of Kenny Hibbitt's tenure in September 1994 and he was replaced by Chris Nicholl, who brought with him a new lease of life for the players. There were brave cup displays against West Ham, who we beat 2-1 in the first leg of a League Cup second-round tie, and Leeds, who were held to a 1-1 draw at Bescot in the FA Cup. In the league, we held our nerve to claim promotion, finishing in second place after gaining the point we needed on a warm Thursday evening in Bury.
There was much anticipation surrounding the 1995/96 campaign, and after taking a while to settle, a play-off spot looked well within reach until a downturn in the weather coincided with a dip in results. At one point the club hovered dangerously just above the relegation trap-door, but in the end an 11th-place finish was achieved.
The loss of influential players and lack of incoming transfer activity meant that 1996/97 started poorly with just one win in our first eight games. Happily, things picked up and once more a place in the play-offs was a possibility. Again, a poor run of results ended any promotion hopes and the club had to settle for another season safely tucked in mid-table.
Nicholl decided he had taken the club as far as he could and handed over the reins to Jan Sorensen, who became our first foreign manager. A former Ajax player and Denmark International, Sorensen had an extremely cavalier attitude to the game, and although league form was poor, he led the club on three exciting cup adventures. Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United were beaten in the League Cup, with Walsall also thrashing Macclesfield 7-0 en route to the FA Cup fourth round, where we lost 5-1 at Manchester United in front of 54,669 at Old Trafford. On top of that, the club came within a whisker of getting to the Wembley final of the Auto Windscreens Shield, losing 4-3 on aggregate to Bournemouth at the area final stage.
League form left a lot to be desired and we could only muster a 19th-place berth, leading to Sorensen being sacked shortly after the end of the season.
His replacement was Ray Graydon and he wasted little time in sorting out the playing staff, bringing in a number of new faces and injecting a strict code of conduct throughout the club.
This bore fruit immediately with Walsall winning promotion as runners-up in his first season at the helm, despite starting the campaign as one of the favourites for relegation. The likes of big-spending Manchester City and Preston couldn't overhaul the Saddlers, who fostered an outstanding team spirit, with the likes of Andy Rammell and Darren Wrack really coming to the fore in a team of heroes.
The start of the new Millennium saw Walsall as members of the first division, competing against the likes of local rivals Wolves, West Brom and Birmingham, as well as two-time European Cup winners Nottingham Forest and 1995 Premier League champions Blackburn.
After victories against Wolves, West Brom (twice) and Birmingham, the team quite rightly earned the Pride of the Midlands tag. However, it was not enough to keep us in the division as a brave battle right up to the final day of the season saw us narrowly fall back into Division Two.
Unlike previous relegation seasons, there was plenty of positivety surrounding this one and in 2000/01 the club made an explosive start. We stayed in the top four throughout the campaign, after leading the way for much of the opening three months. After finishing in fourth place, the Saddlers were paired against Stoke in the play-off semi-finals. The first leg finished goalless but we produced a stunning second-leg performance to win 4-2 at the Banks’s and book a Millennium Stadium showdown against Reading. Around 17,000 Saddlers supporters travelled to Cardiff for a day they would never forget. Jamie Cureton fired Alan Pardew’s Royals in front but Don Goodman equalised to take the tie to extra time. Ex-Saddler Martin Butler restored Reading’s lead, only for Tony Rougier’s own goal and Darren Byfield’s 110th-minute strike to seal a thrilling 3-2 comeback win. Ray Graydon’s Walsall had returned to the second tier at the first attempt!
Once more our eyes were opened to the harsh realities of first division life early on in the 2001/02 campaign as, despite beating West Brom on the opening day, we made a generally spluttering start. In fact, we remained in the bottom five throughout much of the season. The club took drastic action at the turn of the year when the much-loved Ray Graydon was relieved of his duties and within days Colin Lee was tasked with steering us away from the drop.
Lee was given 16 games to save our skin, and his arrival not only saw an upturn in league results, but we also made it to the fifth round of the FA Cup, where we narrowly lost 2-1 against Fulham.
Division One survival was always our main objective, and as the season came to a close, a run of just one defeat from ten games was enough to secure survival with one game still to play.
This achievement, coupled with league and cup success for the reserves, U19s and U17s, gave the club plenty of reason to look forward to the future with great optimism.
Hopes were high heading into the 2002/03 campaign, with the club having arguably the strongest-ever group of players at its disposal. Work had also commenced to turn the Gilbert Alsop Stand into a two-tier cantilever construction that would dwarf the other stands, while development work was also underway to build a new media room, gymnasium and laundry room.
On the pitch, the club spent the majority of the season battling just above the relegation zone, but with Junior and Jorge Leitao scoring regularly and Player of the Season Ian Roper solid at the back, we rarely looked in serious danger of going down.
A strong finish saw us retain our second-tier status with two games to play, finishing 17th, while we also progressed to the fifth round of the FA Cup.
The summer of 2003 brought about the most significant signing in the history of the club when former England International Paul Merson put pen to paper on a deal that really captured the imagination of the Saddlers faithful. It thrust Walsall into the national spotlight and made our intentions perfectly clear as we prepared for a record-breaking third consecutive season at first division level.
With the likes of Vinny Samways and Simon Osborn also snapped up, the season couldn't have got off to a better start with local rivals West Brom, fresh from a season in the top flight, comprehensively beaten 4-1. The victory raised expectations levels further, but we failed to reach those high standards often enough, despite finishing 2003 in 13th place and within easy reach of the play-offs.
To say the second half of the season was a disappointment would be a gross understatement. It took us until March 13th to record our first victory of the New Year, while a host of off-field problems added to the tale of woe. It all culminated with the departure of manager Colin Lee, with Merson taking temporary charge for the final four games. But Merson was unable to save us, with Walsall being relegated in 22nd position on goal difference.
Despite the club's demotion, Merson was handed the job on a permanent basis and hopes were high at the start of the 2004/05 League One campaign. But the Saddlers' eyes were well and truly opened to the harsh realities of life at a lower level, as we struggled in the bottom half of the table virtually all season. Helped by some inspired loan signings, Merson's men ended the season impressively, going unbeaten in the final six games to finish 14th - not a bad achievement considering relegation was still a possibility going into the final month of the campaign.
With some impressive signings and numerous youngsters emerging from the youth ranks, 2005/06 was approached with real relish and determination. Things started well and after three games we found ourselves top of the table. However, we started to slip further and further down the table as the season progressed and the slump culminated in Merson's departure following a heavy 5-0 defeat at Brentford in February 2005.
Head of Youth Mick Halsall stepped in for three games as caretaker before Kevan Broadhurst was given the task of securing our League One status.
Despite a positive start to Broadhurst's reign, the Saddlers soon fell back into old ways and, after relegation was confirmed with defeat against Huddersfield in the penultimate home game of the season, Broadhurst's tenure was ended.
Mark Kinsella took over on a caretaker basis for the final two games as we completed a truly miserable campaign by finishing bottom of the table.
Richard Money was given the task of reviving our fortunes in 2006/07 as he ended a three-year spell working abroad to return to these shores. He quickly stamped his authority on things during the summer, bringing in numerous new faces as we looked to make an immediate return to League One. That dream was realised with three games remaining when the Saddlers clinched automatic promotion with a 2-1 victory at Notts County. We were then crowned League Two champions following a 1-1 draw at Swindon on the final day of the season. In a memorable campaign, midfielder Dean Keates weighed in with a career-best 13 goals to finish as top scorer, while goalkeeper Clayton Ince kept a record-breaking 22 clean sheets in all competitions.
There were numerous key changes during the summer of 2007, including our first-ever stadium sponsorship deal as Bescot Stadium became known as the Banks's Stadium. The club badge also changed and we reverted to the white shirts and red shorts combination that served us for much of the 1970s, as well as spells in the 60s and 80s.
We registered our first league win of 2007/08 at the sixth attempt, with Troy Deeney's late winner sealing victory at Millwall, but a 3-0 home defeat by Oldham the following week saw us hit rock bottom of the table. That prompted Money to introduce a number of youngsters into the side and they made a big impact as we embarked on a run of just two defeats in 26 games, with the Saddlers rising to fourth. But a poor spell in March, which yielded just one win from seven games, saw the team slip out of the play-off zone. Our play-off aspirations ended with a 3-1 home reverse at the hands of Bournemouth in our 44th league game, leading to Money's resignation. His right-hand man Jimmy Mullen took charge of the final two games as we ended the season in 12th position.
There was a significant moment on July 1st 2008 as the club officially opened the doors to its very own training ground for the first time. Situated in Broad Lane, Essington, the project took two years to complete, with the state-of-the-art facility featuring two pitches complete with sprinkler system, a training area, gymnasium, medical room, changing rooms, boot and kit room, offices, dining room, kitchen and video analysis area.
After a positive start in 2008/09, which included a 1-0 win at Brighton despite playing for over an hour nine men, inconsistent results and a poor home record led to Mullen being relieved of his duties on 10th January 2009. John Schofield took caretaker charge for the game at Peterborough before he too departed the club. This paved the way for the appointment of Chris Hutchings, with former Saddlers skipper Martin O'Connor being named his assistant. A run of six games without defeat in February and into the start of March gave hope that a play-off place could still be achieved, but in the end it wasn't to be as we finished 13th.
Nevertheless, there were plenty of encouraging signs heading into 2009/10, although the new season started slowly. An excellent goalless draw at Norwich proved the catalyst for an upturn in fortunes as the Saddlers progressed into the top half of the table. That momentum was disrupted by the adverse winter weather, with Walsall going almost a month between December 19th and January 16th without playing a game. In the end, we secured a top-ten finish with a final-day victory over MK Dons, making it a season of progress.
But the 2010/11 campaign proved a season of struggle, not helped by the summer departure of striker Troy Deeney. A wretched run of results left the Saddlers bottom and eight points from safety, seemingly destined for relegation. Hutchings and O'Connor were relieved of their duties two games into the new year, with Head of Youth Dean Smith taking over as caretaker. Our fortunes improved considerably, and in his first game, Andy Butler scored a dramatic last-minute equaliser as we fought back from 3-1 down to draw 3-3 at Tranmere. Smith was handed the job on a permanent basis on 21st January, and eight days later, he secured his first victory – a 6-1 mauling of Bristol Rovers. The Saddlers amassed 25 points from the next 19 fixtures to survive the drop by one point and one place, finishing in 20th position.
With a number of new faces secured during the summer of 2011, we began the new campaign positively. We ended the opening month in tenth position, but too many draws and late goals saw us slip into the lower reaches of the table. Our survival mission was complete with one game to spare and we ended up finishing seven points clear of danger. During that season, James Walker became the club's all-time record appearance maker.
There was another influx of new players in the summer of 2012 - including Paul Downing, James Chambers and Craig Westcarr - as Smith and Richard O'Kelly looked to build a squad capable of challenging at the right end of the table. There were some encouraging results in the early months of the campaign as we took our place in the top ten before a stuttering autumn saw us go 16 games without a win. An excellent Boxing Day victory over MK Dons stimulated an excellent second half of the season, losing just two of our final 21 games. Despite sitting just outside the relegation zone at Christmas, the Saddlers finished the campaign in ninth place, six points outside the play-offs.
April 6th 2013 saw us celebrate our 125th anniversary with a home game against Sheffield United. The club challenged for a top-six place for much of the 2013/14 campaign and there were some notable results, including a 5-1 destruction of Notts County and a deserved 1-0 win at Wolves. Our play-off bid faltered in the latter stages of the season, with the Saddlers falling to a finishing positon of 13th.
The Chuckery (1888-93)
Situated in a district near to the famous Walsall Arboretum, this multi-purpose sports ground comprised of 12 football pitches and four good-sized cricket squares. Before their amalgamation, both the Walsall Swifts and Walsall Town clubs utilised this ground regularly, sometimes having home games on the same afternoon. The first home game of the Walsall Town Swifts was staged at the Chuckery Ground on 8th September 1888 against Derby St. Luke's in a friendly. Our first-ever Football League match was also played there, against Darwen, on 3rd September 1892. However, after several complaints from residents in the Sutton Road area, Walsall were forced to leave the Chuckery after just one season, the final game being a 1-1 draw with Sheffield United on 15th April 1893. The best attendance for a Football League game at the Chuckery was 2,500 v Small Heath on 10th September 1892.
Wood Green Oval (1893)
After leaving the Chuckery, the site of the new ground was in nearby West Bromwich Road. However, the ground was not ready by the required date and, consequently, we played our first two home league matches of the 1893/94 season at the Wood Green Oval (capacity 6,000). The Saddlers lost on both occasions: 3-1 to Small Heath and 5-0 to Burslem Port Vale.
West Bromwich Road (1893-96 & 1900-01)
The new ground in West Bromwich Road had a capacity of just over 4,500 and proved to be a lucky omen for the Saddlers. We won our opening league game there on 23rd September 1893, beating Crewe 5-1. Three years were spent at this venue, up to September 1896 when Hillary Street (Fellows Park) was officially opened. However, in December 1900, we returned to West Bromwich Road for the remainder of that season after being unable to pay the rent on our Hillary Street ground. Walsall's best attendance for a home league game at West Bromwich Road was 4,000 v Liverpool on 11th November 1893.
Hillary Street/Fellows Park (1896-1900 & 1901-90)
Walsall's first game at Hillary Street was played on 1st September 1896 - a 4-1 friendly victory over Glossop North End before a crowd of just over 1,000. Four days later the first Football League game took place and again the Saddlers were victorious, this time beating Burton Wanderers 2-0 in front of 2,500. After seven years of unrest regarding leasing, rent and general maintenance of this ground, an agreement on leasing Hillary Street was at last finalised in early September 1903. The ground was renamed Fellows Park in the summer of 1930 after club director Mr. H. L. Fellows. We stayed at Fellows Park until the summer of 1990, when we switched to the new Bescot Stadium just down the road.
It took some time for Hillary Street to look like a compact football stadium. A brick wall at the Laundry End was finally removed in May 1965 and became an open terrace, mainly for visiting supporters. The Main Stand was eventually built on the east side of the ground and soon afterwards a roof was erected over the popular side terracing, in readiness for fans to watch the Walsall v Arsenal FA Cup tie in January 1933. The first floodlit match to take place at Fellows Park was between Walsall and Falkirk in December 1957. New dressing rooms were installed following Walsall's return to the second division in 1961, with the Hillary Street End being covered in 1965. A decade later, the Main Stand was extended - providing another 1,490 seats - and the dressing rooms were switched back to this side of the ground. The capacity was reduced from 24,000 to 12,000 in 1985 following recent football ground tragedies, with the seating being cut to just 844.
The final league game at Fellows Park on 1st May 1990 finished in a 1-1 draw with Rotherham; full-back Andy Dornan was the last Saddlers player to score at the ground. The last first-team game there was Peter Hart's testimonial against West Brom on 11th May 1990.
The record attendance for a league game at Fellows Park was 25,453 v Newcastle on 29th August 1961; the lowest was 1,047 v Halifax on 25th January 1926.
The Hawthorns (1970)
On 25th February 1970, Walsall played a 'home' Third Division league game against Brighton on the ground of neighbours West Brom. This was because Fellows Park had been waterlogged for some weeks and the Saddlers desperately needed to ease a congested fixture list. Brighton won the match 3-0 in front of a crowd of 7,535.
Bescot Stadium/Banks's Stadium (1990-Present)
Much of the credit for the creation of Bescot Stadium must go to the club's former chairman, Barrie Blower. It was due to his inspirational leadership that league football was saved in Walsall. Through his resilience, determination and vision, countless obstacles were successfully overcome, resulting in the town of Walsall inheriting one of the most modern stadiums in the Football League in the early 1990s.
Work on the £4.5m stadium commenced in June 1989 and finished the following July, with the original capacity 11,104. Nowadays, the Banks’s is an all-seater venue comprising of four separate stands, with a total capacity of 11,300.
The two-tiered Tile Choice Stand, which was extended in 2003, is the largest stand in the ground, accommodating just under 5,000 supporters. The remaining three stands – the Homeserve Stand, the St Francis Group Community Stand and the University of Wolverhampton Stand (away) – are of the same height and follow a similar single-tiered design. The corners are filled in with advertising hoardings and refreshment kiosks, with a large TV screen situated between the Community and University of Wolverhampton stands. Corporate hospitality areas are available in the Tile Choice and Homeserve Stands, with disabled facilities at the front of the Community Stand. The Ticket Office and Club Shop are located at the front of the HomeServe Stand, with the Programme Shop at the back of the University of Wolverhampton Stand.
Sir Stanley Matthews officially opened the ground on 18th August 1990 ahead of the first game against Aston Villa, who won the friendly encounter 4-0 before an excellent crowd of 9,551. The first league match, on 25th August, was watched by 5,219 and finished in a 2-2 draw against Torquay; Martin Goldsmith and Stuart Rimmer scored the Saddlers' goals.
The ground, which has also hosted international matches, was renamed the Banks's Stadium in a sponsorship deal on 9th May 2007.
The record crowd to date is 11,409 for the Saddlers' match against Rotherham on 9th May 2004.
Third Division (now League One)
Runners-Up (2): 1960–61, 1998–99
Play-Off Winners (2): 1987–88, 2000–01
Fourth Division (now League Two)
Champions (2): 1959–60, 2006–07
Runners-Up (2): 1979–80, 1994–95
Football League Trophy
Runners-Up (1): 2014–15
Birmingham Senior Cup
Winners (4): 1880–81 (as Walsall Swifts), 1896–97, 1897–98, 1993–94
Runners-Up (6): 1883–84, 1884–85, 1885–86 (all as Walsall Swifts), 1907–08, 1999–00, 2006–07
Staffordshire Senior Cup
Winners (4): 1881–82, 1884–85 (both Walsall Town), 1928–29, 1967–68
Runners-Up (13): 1880–81, 1881–82, 1886–87 (all as Walsall Swifts), 1889–90, 1892–93, 1898–99, 1910–11, 1920–21, 1921–22, 1948–49, 1949–50, 1952–53, 1965–66
Walsall Senior Cup
Winners (5): 1876–77 1877–78 1888–79 (all as Walsall Swifts), 2014–15, 2016-17
Runners-Up (1): 2012–13
Highest Post-War League Position: 14th in Second Division (now Championship), 1961–62
FA Cup: 5th Round (6): 1938–39, 1974–75, 1977–78, 1986–87, 2001–02, 2002–03
League Cup: Semi-Final (1): 1983–84
Football League Trophy: Runners-Up (1): 2014–15
Highest League Attendance at Fellows Park: 25,453 v Newcastle. Second Division (now Championship), 29 August 1961
Highest League Attendance at Banks's Stadium: 11,049 v Rotherham. First Division (now Championship), 9 May 2004
Highest Third Division (now League One) Attendance: 19,589 v Notts County, 18 March 1950
Highest Fourth Division (now League Two) Attendance: 15,403 v Carlisle, 10 September 1959
Highest FA Cup Attendance: 24,045 v Fulham, 4th Round Replay, 30 January 1962
Highest League Cup Attendance: 21,066 v Liverpool. 4th Round, 17 February 1968
Highest Football League Trophy Attendance: 10,038 v Preston. Area Final Second Leg, 27 January 2015
Highest Average Attendance at Fellows Park: 15,711, 1947–48
Highest Average Attendance at Banks's Stadium: 7,853, 2003–04
League Win: 10–0 v Darwen. Second Division, 4 March 1899
League Defeat: 0–12 v Small Heath. Second Division, 17 December 1892
Cup Win: 7–0 v Macclesfield. FA Cup 2nd Round, 6 December 1997
Most Appearances: Jimmy Walker (534) 1993-04, 2010–12
Most League Appearances: Colin Harrison (473) 1964–82
Top Goalscorer: Alan Buckley (202) 1973–78, 1979–84
Top League Goalscorer: Tony Richards (185) 1954–63
Most Hat-tricks: Gilbert Alsop (22)
Most League Goals in a Season: Gilbert Alsop (40) 1933–34, 1934–35
Most capped player: Mick Kearns (15), Republic of Ireland
Most Games Won in a Row (7): 1959, 2005
Most Games Lost in a Row (15): 1988–89
Most Games without Defeat (21): 1979–80
Most Games without Victory (18): 1988–89