How many league clubs have never played at Wembley? The correct answer is four, but on Sunday that number will drop to three – Accrington Stanley, Crawley Town and Hartlepool United – as Walsall make their first appearance there in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final against Bristol City.
For Dean Smith, manager of the Saddlers, it will be a proud moment to see Walsall step out in front of 71,000 spectators – 29,000 of them from the West Midlands – and write a fresh chapter in their 127-year history. “I am really pleased I can give something back because the football club gave me my first chance in football at 16 years old by signing me on as an apprentice,” he tells The Independent. “I always felt I needed to give something back and this is just a small reward for the future they gave me in football.”
For Smith, a Walsall player from 1988-93, it is another step in the restoration of the “homely” club he knew as an apprentice, hearing tales of their run to the 1984 League Cup semi-finals from senior players like Richard O’Kelly, now his assistant coach. “I ended up being his bootboy,” Smith, who turned 44 yesterday, recalls. “I really enjoyed that atmosphere when I was an apprentice at the football club and seeing those players together and I am trying to recreate that.”
Smith, English football’s fourth longest-serving manager, took over in 2011 – stepping up from a head of youth role to replace Chris Hutchings – and set about transforming the identity of a team then filled with players on short-term deals and bottom of League One. “We tried to come up with something we felt we stood for,” he explains. “The West Midlands in general was hit quite hard economically, it has always been known as a hard-working area and first and foremost we wanted hard-working people there.
“We wanted a style in which we play and that would be based on an exciting game of possession-based football and we want good people with good old-fashioned values. The players we get in we do a lot of background work on them before recruiting because we are looking at good people to come into the club and we seem to have found that. We have more longevity with players on longer-term contracts and the supporters can now start identifying with a lot of players at the club rather than having a revolving-door policy.”
It helps too that one-third of his squad are home-grown. “I believe in the system and to have a third of the squad come through is unbelievable in the area we are in with Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion and Wolves – more high-profile football clubs. We stand up there with them by competing against them because the players have more chance of playing and making a career for themselves at our club.”
Smith’s first coaching experience came at another of his old clubs, Leyton Orient, where he was Martin Ling’s No2 and the Os’ old fitness coach, Sandy Risley, will actually be joining him on the bench at Wembley after coming through recent treatment for cancer. “He is 80 now. He has run 156 marathons and is the strongest man I have met mentally. Whenever I have any problems I can talk to him and he can put a slant on them to make you see through them.”
On paper, Walsall – whose top scorer Tom Bradshaw will undergo a fitness test tomorrow – will need all the support they can get against the League One leaders. “We are the underdogs and rightly so – they have got a really strong squad who are flying in the league – but we’ve played them once at home this season and drew 1-1,” says Smith, whose team sit 15th. “We are more than capable of matching a lot of the bigger clubs in this league, our problem in terms of consistency this season is not beating the lower half of the league as much as we have done the top half.”
Whatever the outcome, Walsall’s historic appearance is vindication for the faith shown in Smith when his side sank to the bottom of League One in late October. “We know you can’t always be successful straight away and we had a number of injuries at the time but there was a belief in what we were doing,” he explains. “The day we went joint-bottom, we played Crawley on the Tuesday evening and for me that was the turning point of the season – we had 27 attempts on goal that night and they had three and they beat us 1-0.”
Such hiccups, he notes, are inevitable at a club “run as a business” on a tight budget,who have recorded a profit for nine years running. “Although it makes it difficult, it makes it pure as well,” he adds. “When we walk out at Wembley and hopefully lift a trophy it makes it feel even sweeter.”Reuse content