Walsall have been in League One for ages, and you can’t help but admire their consistency; in fact, the Saddlers have resided in the third tier for so long now that you feel like we should have played them on the first day of the season... like when you start at a new job and someone who has been there a while gives you a tour, introduces you to Mary from accounts, shows you the jar where you put 50p in every week for tea and coffee, and so on.
Our opposition on Saturday could have done similar with us, taking us through every club, who has the best dressing rooms, the best pies, a heads up about that weird pub in Doncaster where a bloke was singing “Imagine” by John Lennon at 4pm on a Tuesday.
Alas, we face them this Saturday with the season a third of the way through and Sunderland well versed in all the idiosyncrasies of League One. We’re finding our feet now and Walsall looked like they were going to be up there as well in the early stages. Dean Keates’ men enjoyed a blistering start to the season, brushing off all kinds of upstarts as they finally went for that elusive promotion.
No more introducing people to Mary from accounts for them!
At least it looked that way until the past few weeks. The form of Walsall has dipped dramatically over recent games, so much so that they better not even consider clearing out their division three desk just yet. To find out what’s going on with them, we spoke to top Walsall fansite Bescot Banter to get the low down on what we can expect.
RR: Walsall enjoyed a pretty decent start to the season and were one of the early pacesetters. Your form has dropped pretty dramatically over the past few weeks though - do you put that down to anything in particular?
BB: It’s difficult to pinpoint just one issue. Our attacking line hasn’t been as potent over recent weeks, and the defence has also struggled to stand up to pressure, adding up to a somewhat dismal run which includes four defeats in the last six league outings.
We’re confident that the recent run is simply a blip and we’ll return to form over the coming weeks, something which should be boosted by a number of both niggling and long-term injuries hopefully being resolved, allowing for a bit more tactical flexibility.
RR: Dean Keates made over 200 appearances for The Saddlers, so he arrived into the dugout with plenty of good faith I would presume. What do you make of him as a manager though? Is it fair to say it’s been a mixed bag so far?
BB: As a manager, he has been superb. Even in his short time back at the club Keates has taken the bull by the horns and sought to improve both the coaching and scouting systems, whilst greatly strengthening the squad adding much-needed depth.
Being from the town and also a product of the club’s youth system, Dean was the perfect man to take the club forward. Although not exactly proven in management, Dean had amassed plenty of experience before entering the world of management and will hopefully be the man to take the club to the next level.
With that being said, it is fair to say that form has dipped over recent months, but we’re confident that the team will be able to navigate out of the current issues and back towards the form which saw them battle towards the top of the table.
RR: Keates steered you away from relegation last season of course, as you stayed up by two points. How has the affected your expectations for this season? What would constitute a good campaign for Walsall?
BB: We’re currently in our twelfth successive campaign in League One so we’re pretty well versed in surviving relegation battles, along with the odd (rare) flirtation with promotion. As such, we went into the campaign hoping to finish in upper midtable, whilst expecting a bit of a struggle, at least before the club began to add players over the summer.
The early spell of form did plenty for both players and fans as confidence grew and we began to dream once more.
It’s difficult to be gauge what most supporters would class as a ‘good’ campaign, as a quick look at various social media groups would tell you that first place should be the target, whilst others would be happy to survive the season and begin to build upon what the manager and club have built over the start of the season.
We think that finishing somewhere in between is the most likely outcome.
Dean Keates often uses his interviews to keep things real, as he is keen to reach 52 points as soon as possible before looking towards a possible Play-Off push, should there be time left in the season, something we have to support, especially with so many games still to come.
RR: Onto Saturday’s game, who’s your main danger man? Anyone in particular that Sunderland fans should be keeping an eye on?
BB: When they’re firing, wingers Josh Ginnelly and Zeli Ismail can provide a test to even the best defences in the league. The pacy pair are often backed up by defenders Nicky Devlin and Luke Leahy, offer plenty of balls into the box.
Obviously, top-scorer Andy Cook will be the man to watch.
He has bagged eight goals so far this season and will no doubt be looking to close in on double figures as soon as possible. The former Tranmere striker had been enduring a bit of a slump in form but three goals in his last five league outings should see his confidence growing ahead of this weekend’s clash.
RR: How about the Sunderland side. Any of our players you’re particularly worried about?
BB: With eleven goals in twenty appearances, Josh Maja could provide a bit of an issue for our defence on Saturday afternoon.
He gets more than half of his shots on target so will no doubt keep Liam Roberts busy during the match.
RR: How do you expect Keates to approach this game and what do you think his starting line up will be?
BB: Dean isn’t a great fan of rotation (famous last words), especially if the previous outing had seen a positive performance, so we don’t expect too much to change from last weekend’s televised draw with Fleetwood Town.
Unless he doesn’t like what he has seen in training over the week, you can expect the Saddlers to line up in a 4-4-2 formation with the only possible change seeing Josh Gordon dropped for Morgan Ferrier.
Possible starting XI: Roberts; Devlin, Martin, Guthrie, Leahy; Ismail, Kinsella, Dobson, Ginnelly; Gordon, Cook. Substitutes: Dunn; Johnson, Fitzwater, Wilson; Ronan; Morris; Ferrier
RR: Finally, can you give us a score prediction please?
BB: I often get these very, very wrong, so avoid betting on it!
Given both side’s recent form we expect Sunderland to take the win on Saturday.
1-3 to the Black Cats.