The latest memoirs from the Saddlers faithful comes from lifelong fan Roger Walker.
“Where it began, I can’t begin to knowing.” So sang Neil Diamond. Well, I can remember where it began in some detail. It was well over 60 years ago when I first set foot inside Fellows Park. I haven’t been able to ascertain the exact date, but it was December 1957 and for some reason, 13th December sticks in my mind. The opposition was a bit of a strange one as it was the then Scottish Cup holders – Falkirk. Quite a coup for the club, I would say. Most 9 year old lads were taken to their first match by their fathers, but I had to be different! My father’s view on football was that he didn’t want to spend money “watching 22 blokes kick a bag of wind around”. A view he held until his dying day. Fortunately, there was a more enlightened family friend, known to us as Uncle Gil, who took me under his wing. And so started a lifelong love affair with The Saddlers. As a matter of interest, Walsall won the match 5-0 or 5-1. Goals were easy to come by in those days. A little while after that came another promotional match against a team of midlands “all stars”. I can’t remember who was involved in the invitational team, but I am pretty sure that Wolves’ Malcolm Finlayson was in goal and I think former Saddler and England international Johnny Hancocks also played. The scoreline was similar.
Uncle Gil took me to quite a few matches over the next few years. Strangely, the vast majority were under the lights. The inauguration of floodlights opened a sort of golden era for the club. The amalgamation of Divisions 3 South and 3 North into Divisions 3 and 4 turned out to be a bit of a turning point for the club. On one of our rare family holidays to a caravan at Winkup’s site just outside Rhyl in 1959 saw us domiciled next to a young couple. The fellow encouraged me to kick a ball around with him and he said that he was a professional footballer with Oldham Athletic (imagine a professional footballer today spending his annual holiday in a grotty caravan at Rhyl!). He told me that he believed that Walsall would get promoted the coming season. Whether he believed it or not, it happened! The club’s first ever league promotion – and as champions. I recall being very disappointed at 2 matches early on in that season. A 2-2 draw against Hartlepool and a 1-0 defeat by Carlisle. I’ve hated both clubs ever since! One incident in the Carlisle match which has stuck in my mind was that one of the visitors broke a corner flag (not flexible plastic in those days, but real wood) and it took some time to get a replacement. But this was certainly an era of goals, and counteracting those 2 was an 8-0 win against Southport. That season, the club failed to score in only 4 league games. There was a massive downside in the FA Cup, however, was a 3-2 defeat by non-league Peterborough. In truth, it was no disgrace as the Posh were renowned giant killers at the time and were elected to the league for the next season at the expense of Gateshead.
Amazingly, we were to be delighted next season by a second successive promotion. Family relations by this time were becoming somewhat strained, and my visits to Hillary Street became fewer. A 5-1 victory over Southend in the early part of the season being a particular highlight, as was a 3-0 win against Colchester on Easter Monday. Again, though, a real sickener was the 1-0 defeat by another well-known non-league giant killer in Yeovil. Through the season, though, goals were again easy to come by with only 7 blanks drawn in league matches. Sadly, financial constraints meant that I was unable to go to the “promotion match” at Shrewsbury, to my eternal disappointment.
And so to Division 2 (now called the Championship) for 2 of my most memorable seasons. I wasn’t able to get to the 4-3 win on the opening day against Brian Clough’s Sunderland, nor to the 1-0 win against Newcastle which turned out to set the record attendance at Fellows Park. Most disappointingly, my first match that season was the next home game following the Newcastle victory with hopes soaring that a real impression could be made on the table. Oh the folly of youth! A 5-1 defeat proved to be one of the real lows of my “career”. I suppose that I shouldn’t have been too disappointed because Leyton Orient finished second to the mighty Liverpool to spend their only ever season in the top flight. The FA Cup provided a brief but memorable run to the 4thround. Bristol City proved to be no match for the lads in a 3rd round replay, a 4-1 victory giving a match at Craven Cottage against the might that was Fulham. A 2-2 draw was achieved, bringing the first division team to Fellows Park for the replay. No fewer than 24,045 people crammed into Fellows Park, the vast majority coming to see the legendary Johnny Haynes who had been injured for the first game. He inspired the Cottagers to a 2-0 win, but it was incredible to see one of the truly greats of English football gracing our home turf. Relegation the following season seemed almost inevitable and it became obvious that the club was going to struggle to compete with the big boys following the recent abolition of the maximum wage.
I don’t think I went to any games in the 63-64 season, but, fresh out of school and into a job, I had money in my pocket and was searching for adventure in this big wide world so I could barely wait for the 64-65 season to start. Sadly the start of the season gave us what Walsall FC has become renowned for – consistently inconsistent. Defeat to Gillingham followed by a 4-0 trouncing of QPR, then a 4-1 beating by Workington then a 4-1 thrashing of Reading! I am, at this stage, only talking about home games. The great thing about the Reading game was a first hat-trick by the prolific Allan Clarke. I won’t try to bore you all with details of too many individual games, but concentrate on some of the highlights (and, naturally – low lights). And actually in the 64-65 season there were precious few highlights. The 65-66 season proved to be much more fascinating, with a run in the FA Cup to the 4thround. Swansea in round 1 was a real ding-dong. 3-1 up at half time and we felt the match was won. However, roared on by several thousand away fans, (they certainly can sing down in the valleys!), the Swans hit back to equalise mid-way through the second half. From then on, we thought, the game was up but euphoria struck with 3 breakaways in the last 10 minutes to hand us a thoroughly unexpected and, in all honesty, undeserved 6-3 victory. Away at Aldershot in the 2nd round on a thoroughly depressing dark and very wet December afternoon. A routine 2-0 win included the weird sight of a Colin Taylor effort sticking in the mud on the goal line! And so to Stoke and probably one of the weirdest matches I have ever been to. To start with, we had managed to get tickets for the “home” end so were completely outnumbered. Then Jimmy McMorran gets clobbered on the halfway line after only about 15 minutes and struggled to continue. Brilliant, though, from the free kick, Walsall score! Howard Riley with a volley from the edge of the box. A few minutes later and it looked as though Stoke had equalised, but an eagle eyed lino had seen something I’d never seen before or since. The ball had actually gone through the side netting so was effectively out of play before entering the net. Then on the stroke of half time, Allan Clarke chased an uncatchable through ball which their keeper dived on. As is his wont, Clarkie duly trampled all over the keeper and as he turns to go back to the halfway line, the keeper kicks his legs from under him! Penalty to the Saddlers, duly converted by “Sniffer”. Second half a non-event so it was yet another “giant killing act” by the lads. The Stoke keeper never played for them again, but he did cross our path a couple of years later, playing for Telford (or was it still Wellington then?) in a pre-season friendly and managing to hoof a loose ball straight at one of our strikers and into the net. I bet he never visited Walsall on his holidays!Norwich in round 4 proved a step too far, losing 3-2, but that was certainly one of the most entertaining cup runs ever.
By this time I was going to most away games along with a varied selection of fellow supporters. Most times we managed to purloin the back seats of the coach. In fact I think that eventually, the back 2 rows were reserved for us. At the time, the transport secretary was Dave Houghton. At a match at Mansfield – I can’t be certain which season – it coincided with his birthday so one off our number approached the home team’s PA and requested a song be played in his honour. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to hear it as the announcer pronounced his name as “Huffton”. It should have sounded like “Howton”! One of our groups who I became friendly with was the late Royston (we knew him as Roy) Randall who later himself became transport secretary. One away match at Plymouth stands out in the memory. We almost didn’t go because only 13 of us had booked and Central Coaches wouldn’t allow their coach to be used. The scheduled driver, though, was a fellow fan and volunteered to drive for nothing, so we got there. A 1-0 defeat was further marred by the sending off of Nick Atthey for aiming a punch at one of the Argyle players. It was quite normal in those days to go into the supporters club for a jar or two after the game and be joined by some of the team. Nick Atthey duly turned up and showed everyone why he had aimed the punch. His shin guard had been absolutely shredded by his opponent, yet the ref didn’t even give a free kick, only being concerned with the punch. This night was notable for one other personal event. On the way back, I had dropped off to sleep and woke with a desperate need for relief! I approached our driver who told me to sit down as they had only just stopped at Exeter and he wasn’t stopping again till Bristol. So endured probably the most uncomfortable hour and a half in my life. Our escapade even warranted a column in the next day’s Express and Star.
Attendances at away matches varied and in those days, drawn matches in the League Cup were replayed. We had beaten Shrewsbury in the first round of the 68-69 season and had been drawn against Swansea (still Town in those days) and drew 1-1 at Fellows Park. Very few fans wanted to travel that far for a replay so – as far as I can ascertain – my group was the only one to go. Obviously insufficient to hire a coach so Dave volunteered to drive us. There was me, my mate Roger Smith (who was often mistaken for the actor Roger Tongue who played Sandy in Crossroads) and a couple of others endured an horrendous journey in pouring rain. An early lead was soon reversed and towards the death, they were singing in the valleys. However, in stoppage time we equalised and I have never heard a ground fall so silent. There were 5 of us out of a crowd of nearly 11,000 cheering with deathly silence for the rest. They still scored in extra time so it was out of the league cup for another year and a very quiet journey home.
The seventies was a bit of a nonentity for me, due to a changing family situation. Matches were few and far between. I didn’t even get to the historic defeat of Tommy Docherty’s Manchester United. I made sure that I went to the 4th round match against Newcastle, however, which wrote another chapter in the giant killing history of the Saddlers with George Andrews netting the winner and the Magpies struggling to get any efforts on target, despite their main man being the renowned Malcolm McDonald. An official attendance just short of 20,000 gave plenty of atmosphere. In 1977/78 a cup run to the 5thround saw us drawn against the mighty Arsenal at Highbury. A group from work (which I believe included Ray Dale) decided to travel by train. Problems on the line and a diversion via Northampton meant that we only just arrived in time for kick off. Sadly there was not to be another giant killing act as the Gunners ran out 4-1 victors. At least Alan Buckley got the chance to show his skills on Match of the Day that night. Another adventure over.
One particularly benefit of travelling away with the supporters club was that, when available, it was perfectly possible to obtain complementary tickets for the game. This was particularly prevalent when Ray Shaw was manager. We would congregate by the players’ entrance about 15 minutes before kick-off and if we were lucky, Ray came out with a handful of tickets. Scanning the crowd assembled, he would say to the lucky ones – “Oh! You’re a regular” to those of us that were and tickets were duly accepted with joy. I particularly remember games at Oldham, Swindon, Barrow and QPR. The QPR one being noteworthy for the number of open goals the hosts contrived to miss in a 0-0 draw. The Oldham game was the most satisfying as we won 3-0, the season after being on the wrong end of a 6-2 scoreline.
I was back in force during the 80s thanks to another change of family circumstances. Matches were quite sporadic during the early part of the decade, but the league cup run to the semi-finals in 83-84 caused so much excitement that I couldn’t help myself from becoming a regular once more. Due more to financial constraints than anything else, away games were off the agenda. But who can forget the FA Cup matches against Watford – John Barnes, Luther Blisset and Kenny Jackett amongst others. I almost didn’t get in for the second replay, having been told at the ground that it was a sell-out. Notwithstanding this, by fair means or foul, I managed to get a ticket. You couldn’t help but feel so sorry for Andy Dornan who netted the own goal that put Watford through. The next season and the euphoria was back – along with promotion to the second division. Thanks in no small part to David Kelly’s goals. As an aside from the play-off victory against Bristol City (police horses in the crowd and all!), my wife Catherine and I holidayed that summer on Jersey. With the Bergerac connection (Catherine was – and still is – infatuated with John Nettles). On the Sunday that we were there, we went to a charity event at one of the many big houses and it had been publicised that “Bergerac” would be attending. (Sorry to all you youngsters who wonder who I am talking about, but it was one of the most popular police dramas of the time). I went into the bar and who was standing there but John Nettles himself. We exchanged a few words about football before he threatened to wallop me (I think in jest) because, unbeknown to me at the time he was a Bristol City fan! Just to be on the safe side, I beat a hasty retreat!Catherine went one better, however, coughing up £2 for a picture with him in the passenger seat of the programme’s Triumph Roadster.
Once again I became a regular at away games as well as purchasing a season ticket to try to ensure that the Watford experience was never repeated. By this time, however, the car was the preferred mode of travel and not being a great drinker (alcohol tends to send me to sleep) I was the nominated driver. Over the next 25 years or so, many grounds were visited, lots more than once. This was a time of real highlights as well as plenty of the opposite sort. Inevitably, road traffic delays came into it. Having missed our turning off the M6 for Northwich for a cup tie against Northwich Victoria, we arrived at the ground at 2-55 for the 3-00 kick-off. Amazingly, the steward pointed us to the sole remaining parking spot – right by the turnstiles. Sometimes it pays to be late! Another late arrival that sticks in the memory was a trip to York. This time it was simply traffic congestion that caused the problems. We had started out in plenty of time (about 10-00), but the A63 was not to be our friend. Again, though, we found a parking place close to the ground, so got in just in time for kick-off. At least it would have been had the team coach not been in the same queue. Unfortunately, the club received a fine for delaying the start. A further one was at Sunderland. This time, my wife, Catherine, and I had booked for the weekend just outside Durham. Again, we left our Premier Inn in plenty of time and followed a car with a Sunderland scarf flowing behind. Sadly for us, he had a permit for parking at the ground! Fortunately, a friendly local bobby took pity on us and directed us to a street of back to back terraced houses which had plenty of room on the road for us.Bradford was a bit of a problem as well. I went twice (lost 1-0 and drew 1-1) and got lost in the one way system both times. Again, though, fortune played its part and we managed to park close to the ground both times and got in just before kick-off.
The move to Bescot was supposed to be the dawn of a new era for the club. Although excited at the prospect of “the most modern football ground in the country” (as suggested by Roy Whalley), there was always a nagging doubt about the prospect. I read an article (by whom I can’t remember) entitled something along the lines of “Bescot Stadium – milestone or millstone”. Whoever wrote it knew a thing or two about finance because it has turned out to be very much the latter. To say the early days were difficult is putting it mildly and it hasn’t improved much over 30 years. All those millions that could have been used to finance the playing side squandered in someone’s pension fund. Just how much of a pension pot does one person need?
Major highlights naturally include the promotion seasons. Anyone who was there will remember Jimmy Walker’s save right at the death at Bury to preserve the 0-0 scoreline and automatic promotion back to the 3rd tier. 4 years later and an even more unlikely promotion thanks to “Sir” Ray Graydon. May 1st 1999 and Oldham came visiting. Sheer euphoria!
3-1 and the ground erupted. 2 years later and even more euphoria as the disappointment of relegation was eventually put to bed. Cardiff has always been one of my favourite cities! Rather than risk travelling down on the day, immediately after the 0-0 draw at Stoke, Catherine and I had booked a Premier Inn near Newport. Sometimes it pays to be optimistic So we had plenty of time in the city. Note – even then I didn’t get drunk! Positions of 18th and 17th in the next 2 seasons gave us all hope that there may be a bright future. A feeling that was heightened at the beginning of the 2003-04 season, firstly with the capture of Paul Merson and then the opening day thrashing of West Brom. Sadly the old familiar sinking feeling soon raised its head and as I write this, any return to the heights of Championship football seem as far away as ever. Nevertheless I continued to support the lads both home and away until my last game on 30th April 2011 against Charlton. Will Grigg and Julian Gray did the honours in a 2-0 win in what was a typical end of season encounter. Having retired from work and planning a move to the coast, finances became a little strained so we sadly took the decision not to renew our season tickets. Although there were hiatuses, I think that endurance of 54 years must count for something! I did, after all, follow the lads, even if not always in person. And even if not there, winning is always a joy and defeat a bitter disappointment.
So what of the games and personalities? There are too many to list them all, so I will give you a selection.
Favourite grounds visited – Old Trafford and the Millenium Stadium.
Worst ground – Wigan’s old home at Springfield Park. At least the local innkeeper was friendly enough to let us park there for free.
Best match watched – Probably the 4-1 thumping of West Brom, but equally could be the 2-1 win at Molineux in 1999.
Weirdest match – without a doubt the 1966 2-0 FA Cup win at Stoke.
Worst match – probably the 7-0 home defeat by Chelsea. Apparently the club made a fair bit of cash after the game, selling videos of it to the Chelsea fans. Can it get any worse than that?
Worst weather – again only one contender. Grimsby away in 2002. In the south stand and in the teeth of a northerly gale, it bucketed down all day and although we were under cover, the rain came down horizontally and we were soaked. Jimmy Walker almost conceded a weird own goal as he hoofed a clearance which got caught on the wind and sailed just past the post. We made the most of the weather with Darren Byfield and Don Goodman netting in a 2-2 draw.
Ii won’t get bogged down with choosing a “best team”. I’ve tried it several times and keep coming up with different combinations so I’ll just give a few names from the various positions on the field.
Keepers – Well, Jimmy Walker will obviously be most people’s choice for number one and it is difficult to argue against that. There are a few that could run him close, however. I always regarded Clayton Ince as a very powerful presence at the back. In the same vein, going back to the 60s, Phil Parkes comes to mind one of the few Walsall players to go on and play for England (albeit just 1 cap).
Defenders – Some really good names to ponder here, but for the sake of brevity, I will give you my idea of the best back 4 we ever had. Rhys Weston, Anthony Gerrard, Scott Dann and Danny Fox. At times they seemed impenetrable. We’ve had many good defenders over the years, but I don’t think that as a unit, these 4 can be beaten.
Midfielders – From the 60s, Jimmy McMorran and Alan Baker could lay claim to be the most skilful when working in tandem. From my very early days, Ken Hodgkinson was a 100% player and a great servant to the club. Colin Harrison must be worth a mention, despite the fact that he often operated in defence. Moving on in time, I am also including the late lamented David “Mini” Preece. A sad loss to the game at such a young age. Craig Shakespeare would grace any team of his era and Charlie Ntamark brightened any day! Others in my “Hall of Fame” include – in no particular order - Martin O’Connor (naturally), Jeff Peron, Dean Keates, Nick Atthey, Chris Marsh, Paul Merson (again, naturally) and I’ll finish with my personal choice as the best midfielder we had – Vinny Samways.
Wingers – A dirty word these days, but in my formative years, every team had 2. By definition as they are virtually extinct as a breed, these names come from some time ago. Number one has to be “Cannonball” Colin Taylor. Not necessarily the most skilful but what a shot, as anyone like me who has stood behind the goal and ducked when the ball hit the back of the net will testify. From the same era, who could forget the 2 goals Tommy Watson scored in the fog at Anfield (if you could see them!). Pity we were 5-0 down at the time. From more modern times, Pedro Matias was a majestic presence and Darren Wrack never gave less than 100%.
And so to the strikers. The Saddlers have had a plethora of good strikers over the years so again, I will concentrate on those I would consider to be my favourites. The first out and out striker that I recall would be Tony Richards and his record of 198 goals in 358 appearances was unparalleled at the time. Then came a new youngster on the scene – one Allan Clarke, another who became a full England international and who was literally given away in 1966. His partnership with George Kirby had to be seen to be believed. Alan Buckley would get a place in most teams and served the club well as manager later on. It is extremely unlikely if his record of 202 goals in 483 appearances will ever be beaten. In the 80s, Nicky Cross is worth a mention, but then comes another Walsall legend in David Kelly. Kyle Lightbourne had a decent strike rate as well and although his time with the Saddlers was very limited, I must add in Don Goodman, even if it is only for his goal at Cardiff in 2001.
What about managers? For everyone who thinks that “X” was a good manager but “Y” was lousy, there will be those who hold the opposite view so this is probably the most subjective list of all. On the “good” side I will have the legend of Billy Moore who managed 2 promotions in the 50s and 60s. Ray (not Reg as they have it in the Utilita Yearbook) Shaw, Alan Buckley, Dave Mackay, who would have taken the club much higher had he not been poached by a Kuwaiti club, Chris Nicholl, Colin Lee (controversial I know, but refer to the second sentence of this paragraph) and Dean Smith. On the reverse side of the coin I include Dick Graham, Ronnie Allen, Alan Ashman, Frank Sibley (if you have a copy of the Express and Star “Complete Record of WFC” from 1999, just check out that hairstyle!), John Barnwell, Paul Taylor and most from the 2000s and 2010s.
There are many names which I have omitted in order to get close to “the brief” and to those who can lay claim to a mention, I humbly apologise.
So there you have it. Memories of a fan, follower and supporter from 1957 onwards. Over those years, I have watched the Saddlers play no less than 124 different teams (that includes pre-season and in-season friendlies) on 77 different grounds. I haven’t got round to summarising individual match details, but it is something that may happen in the future. However, like so many old fogies, I never believed those who had already retired when I was working that they didn’t know how they found time to work. Now I do!
Up the Saddlers!!!