LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Walsall FC

Bonser era ends with Saddlers stranded in League Two

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

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, back-seat 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.

Bescot Stadium/Rudi Jansen

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 around 20 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.

Bescot Stadium/Tony Dawber

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.

Bescot Stadium/Tony Dawber

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 remained for over a decade.

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 was 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 – while Smith had been lured to Brentford, only weeks after signing a new contract at Walsall.

It’s been downhill from there. The Saddlers plummeted down the table until relegation in 2019 and then sank close to the bottom of League Two. Behind the scenes, long-term owner Jeff Bonser sold his majority stake in the club to boyhood fan Leigh Pomlett, which in turn meant that Walsall could stop paying rent on their ground to the man in charge. The former proprietor had always been careful with his spending – which is why losing Dean Smith, who could transform raw talent, was such a blow. 

Now Pomlett will have to loosen the purse strings to lift Walsall from the current fourth-tier rut, and work out how to give the Bescot Stadium back to the club while still staying afloat himself. Seven straight league defeats after New Year’s Day 2022 led to the arrival of manager Michael Flynn, who worked wonders at Newport.

Ground Guide

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

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 huge advertising hoarding visible to passing cars helps fund maintenance.

Named after local sponsors Banks’s beer until 2022, the compact former Bescot comprises the two-tier HomeServe Stand Saddlers end, the University of Wolverhampton away end (access via turnstiles 21-28), the Main Stand along one sideline and the 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 Main Stand, and the programme shop behind the away end.

The ground is well equipped with TVs, video screens and food and drink outlets.

getting there

Going to the ground – tips and timings

Few grounds in the Football League are as well equipped for rail travellers and motorists as Walsall’s – and right by the M6 motorway, too. Bescot Stadium station right behind the University of Wolverhampton away end is 20mins by regular train from Birmingham New Street (£4). From Walsall station (£3) one stop and 4mins away, it’s every 30mins.

If you’re coming from Walsall town centre, nx bus 45 (every 20mins Mon-Sat, every 30mins Sun) and Diamond bus 401E (every 20mins Mon-Sat until late afternoon) run from Stand W on Newport Street by the Saddlers Centre to the Bescot Stadium stop by the ground. Journey time is under 10mins.

The sat nav code for Banks’s Stadium is WS1 4SA. Miraculously, the ground has plentiful parking (£5) for home and away fans. Visiting supporters have their own spaces in the blue zone immediately behind the away and closest to the motorway. Walsall supporters park in the red and green zones. The Bescot Stadium station (WS1 4NH) nearest the away end (accessed under the M6) also has a car park, open 24/7 and currently free.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

Tickets are available up to four weeks before most league games from the stadium ticket office (Mon-Fri 9am-3.30pm, match-day Sat 10am-3pm, 4.45pm-5.15pm), over the phone (01922 651 416) and online. Note that all payments at the stadium are cashless.

Prices start at £18 in the lower tier of the HomeServe Stand at £21 and £15 for over-60s. For the upper and middle tiers, and Community Stand, it’s £22/£16. Away fans pay £20/£16 and a seat in the Main Stand is £23/£17. Reduced rates for 18-21s are £15 almost anywhere in the ground, £10 for under-18s, apart from the prime seats in blocks L-R of the Main Stand. Buying on the day is £2 extra across the board.

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

Walsall’s Club Shop (Mon-Fri 9am-4.30pm, match-day Sat 10am-3pm, 4.45pm-5.15pm) behind the Main Stand stocks first-team tops in the Basque colours of red with white and green bands at the top, the club having recently moved away from standard red or white shirts. The second choice is green with red trim. 

All manner of swift-logoe’d gear is also available, coasters, coffee mugs and frilly pennants, while T-shirts bear the image of club mascot Swifty, looking worryingly chunky.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

An old favourite is the King George V on Wallows Lane, opposite the site of former Fellows Park. On the main road from the motorway, the George V opened when the king in question died in 1936, and offers regular guest ales. Less than 10mins from the ground, it’s current awaiting new owners.

On Birmingham Road, the recently refurbished Bell is a large, family-friendly pub with recommendable food and cask ales, plus a beer garden. It’s 15mins from the ground, heading immediately left down Walstead Road and into Bescot Crescent.

Champy’s Bradford Arms at 505 Pleck Road is both a traditional pub with TV football and an Indian/Nepalese restaurant, under the same friendly ownership for 30-plus years. For the stadium, turn right then left at the lights, then right down Bescot Crescent – allow 15mins. Close to Bescot Stadium station on the Wednesbury side, The Windmill (116 Coronation Road) shows big-screen action and has tables outside.

Far closer to the ground, the Hub Bar & Restaurant at the Park Inn by Radisson hotel is also used pre-match, by home supporters and sensible away ones.

The ground has plenty of food and drink outlets but the popular Saddlers Club has closed and the Bescot Bar is under long-term refurbishment.

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