Never top flight or even remotely near it, the Saddlers of Walsall FC have been soldiering on for over a century and a quarter with only the occasional cup upset for comfort.
Generations of bored, carbound kids, stuck in traffic in an absurdly busy stretch of the M6 near Birmingham, must have pointed across at the set of floodlights immediately below and asked what ground it was.
Based here long before the M6 was built, Walsall were originally Walsall Town Swifts, an amalgamation of Walsall Town and Swifts, in 1888. The club badge is still a soaring swift – perhaps a saddle didn’t quite fit the bill.
Always in at the start – the soon renamed Walsall FC were founder members of the Second Division in 1892, the Third Division North in 1921 and the Fourth Division in 1958 – the Saddlers seem to find the third flight their natural habitat. All but 16 seasons since World War I have been spent in the Third Division North, South or post-war equivalent.
In the cup, Walsall still revel in their shock 2-0 win over Arsenal in 1933, an era when the Gunners, still under Herbert Chapman, were a force to be feared across the land. The following week, Chapman sold two of the players who had let the side down that bleak January afternoon at Fellows Park.
The venue had been Walsall’s home since 1896. Close to the current Bescot Stadium, aka Banks’s Stadium, it had been known as Hilary Street after its location until it was renamed after a club director shortly before the seminal cup tie with the Gunners.
The quality players that Walsall produced – England internationals such as goalkeeper Bert Williams and striker Allan Clarke – were quickly sold on.
It would be some time before another cup upset came along. Arsenal were again the victims, the 1983-84 League Cup shock prefacing perhaps an even greater performance, a 2-2 draw at Liverpool in the first leg of the semi-final. The subsequent 2-0 defeat at Fellows Park put paid to a first time at Wembley – and Europe – for the Saddlers.
Managing that young side was Alan Buckley, who had had two spells at Fellows Park, scoring nearly 200 goals. The iconic Walsall figure had been in charge of the reserves, nurturing the young talent of midfielders ‘Mini’ Preece and Craig Shakespeare. With old WBA warhorse Ally Brown and winger Mark Rees, Walsall impressed many with their passing and passion at Highbury and Anfield.
The achievements of the class of ’84, celebrated at a 30th anniversary dinner at the Saddlers Club, still live long in the memory.
Buckley left in 1986, literally minutes after a takeover deal at the club.
Despite relegation to the Fourth in 1990, Walsall set an early trend by building a new stadium, then called the Bescot, that year. Only the second new-build in the Football League for nearly 40 years, the Bescot witnessed a gradual rise to the second flight by the end of the decade. After three consecutive seasons, the Saddlers were back in the third, where they’ve stood since 2007.
In an echo of the Buckley era, Walsall stalwart Dean Smith came in as coach in 2011 after acting as the club’s Head of Youth. The ‘Ginger Mourinho’ had an immediate effect, bringing teenagers into the first team and playing attractive football. The reward has been promising league form and a rare performance at Wembley in front of 72,000 for the Football League Trophy of 2015.
In 2015-16, the Saddlers enjoyed another memorable campaign, hosting Chelsea the League Cup, and narrowly missing out on automatic promotion. Play-off defeat to Barnsley condemned the Saddlers to yet more third-tier football – a situation unlikely to change in 2017-18.
With an all-seated capacity of 11,300, the neat Banks’s Stadium was an early new-build in 1990, when it was named after its location, the Bescot. Close to its own railway station, the ground is also right by the ever-choked M6 motorway – a proposed huge advertising hoarding attracting bored motorists would help fund any future developments.
For the time being, the compact former Bescot comprises the newer Tile Choice home end, University of Wolverham away end, Homeserve main stand and St Francis Community Stand opposite. Choose your seat carefully – supporting pillars may block your view.
The ticket office and club shop are at the back of the Homeserve Stand, and a programme shop behind the away end.
The ground is well equipped with TVs, video screens and food and drink outlets.
Bescot Stadium station right behind the University of Wolverham away end is seven stops (23min) from Birmingham New Street (£3.20/£3.60 off-peak day return), trains every 30min.
If you’re coming from Walsall town centre, bus Nos.45 and 401E run from the main station in St Paul’s Street to Bescot Crescent directly opposite the ground.
The sat nav code for Banks’s Stadium is WS1 4SA. The stadium has an away-supporters car park signposted ‘Blue Zone’ (£4), accessed off Bescot Crescent by the Park Inn Hotel. Bescot Stadium station (WS1 4NH) by the away end (accessed under the M6) provides Pay & Display parking for £2 per car, or head north on Bescot Crescent and turn left into Wallowes Lane to look for on-street parking, ten minutes’ walk from the ground.
Tickets are available up to four weeks before most league games from the stadium ticket office (Mon-Fri 9am-4.30pm, from 11am on Saturday match days) and online. They are also available on the day for £2 extra.
Prices are set at £21 around the ground, £17.50 in the Tile Choice Lower, with various reductions for juniors and seniors. They rise around £1.50 for a handful of Category A games. Visiting fans may pay in advance through their clubs or on the door.
Walsall’s club shop (Mon-Fri 9am-4.30pm, match days/nights) proffers products such as ‘The Bescot Years’ book at £19.99 as well as all manner of swift-logoe’d gear.
Right on Bescot Crescent opposite the main stand, the large, functional Saddlers Club comes into its own on match days, putting away fans (£2 admission) in the bigger function room at the back, home fans at the front, and laying on decent pub grub and Sky Sports TV news.
Visiting supporters also used the Hub Bar & Restaurant at the nearby Park Inn by Radisson hotel.
The nearest pub is the King George V on Wallows Lane, opposite the site of former Fellows Park. On the main road from the motorway, and welcoming both home and away fans, the George V opened when the king in question died in 1936, and offers regular guest ales. It’s less than 10min from the ground – just turn right, then right down Bescot Crescent.
On Birmingham Road, the recently refurbished Bell Inn is a large, family-friendly pub with recommendable food and cask ales. It’s 15min from the ground, heading immediately left down Walstead Road and into Bescot Crescent.
Finally, Champy’s Bradford Arms at 505 Pleck Road is a traditional pub at the front and a restaurant at the back, serving grilled delights. For the stadium, turn right then left at the lights, then right down Bescot Crescent – allow for a 15min stroll.
The ground itself is well facilitated for food and drink outlets in all areas.