Dean Smith recalls the last time we played Port Vale on the opening day of the season - ten years ago...IT WAS your typical opening day of the season weather as Bescot Stadium found itself bathed in wall-to-wall sunshine to welcome in the start of the 2004/05 campaign.
The Saddlers had just been relegated from the second-tier of English football by the narrowest of margins and it was time for our new breed of emerging young talent to be given its chance on the first-team stage.
In one of those quirks of football fate, our season started exactly the same way a decade ago as it will on Saturday – with a local derby against Port Vale, albeit this time we have to travel to Vale Park rather than entertaining them here.
One man who will be involved in both encounters is Dean Smith. Ten years ago he was part of The Valiants’ back-line as he started what turned out to be his final season as a professional. Now he will be looking to mastermind a victory for The Saddlers as he starts his fourth full season at the helm.
“The main thing I remember about that game is how hot it was,” recalled Smith. “We were wearing bright yellow and it wasn’t good for someone with my complexion, I can tell you!
“The general tempo was very good considering the conditions; Walsall had quite a few young lads in their side and, as a 33 year-old, they made it a tricky afternoon.
“It was certainly an entertaining local derby with both sides going at each other right from the very first whistle. There was a player from either side sent off, we had our manager sent to the stands, Walsall had one of their staff sent from the dug-out and there were numerous yellow cards, in fact, I was one of only a handful of players who wasn’t booked!
“The game was in the balance right up until the final ten minutes when Walsall brought on some fresh legs and scored two quick goals to take the points.
“Encounters between Walsall and Vale are usually full-blooded affairs; this was no different and I am expecting more of the same this time around, with hopefully Walsall getting the same result as they did a decade ago!
“We were disappointed to lose twice against them last season. We didn’t deserve that so I’d like to think it will be us who has the bragging rights this time around.”
A 12th minute penalty from Matty Fryatt set us on our way in 2004, only for the lead to be cancelled out just past the hour-mark through Billy Paynter, who was then dismissed moments after finding the net as his celebrations earned him a second yellow card.
Joining him in having an early bath was Ian Roper who saw red five minutes later as referee, Lee Probert, then sent Saddlers’ coach, Iffy Onuora from the dug-out along with Valiants’ boss, Martin Foyle. Six more players received yellow cards on a frantic afternoon.
With just 20 minutes left on the clock, youth team graduate, Leroy Williams, was handed his League debut off the substitutes’ bench and within 12 minutes he had found the net, beating future Saddler, Jonny Brain.
Four minutes later and fellow debutant, Daryl Taylor fired home his first goal for the club to make it 3-1 as all three of our goals were scored by teenagers.
There was still time for Port Vale to grab a consolation goal right at the death, but it was a winning start for Paul Merson’s new-look side as a crowd of 8,225 looked on.
WALSALL: McKinney, Bazeley, Bennett, Emblen, Roper, Standing (Williams), Wrack, Kinsella, Merson (D. Taylor), Birch (Leitao), Fryatt. Subs not used: Paston, Broad.
PORT VALE: Brain, Rowland, James, Collins, D. Smith, Reid, Hulbert (J. Smith), Cummins, Armstrong, Paynter, Brooker (Matthews). Subs not used: Robinson, Brown, Goodlad.