Adventures in Football #25: The Bescot (Walsall FC)
September 11, 2021
WALSALL FC vs. MANSFIELD TOWN (League 2)
Walsall were a decent club as recently as 2004. They’d had a few yo-yo seasons and existed as either a bad Championship level side or a good L1 side. When division one became the Championship they were relegated thus meaning they went down from football league one to football league one. Honestly, this naming nonsense over the years is just silly. They finished third in 2015-16 but the misery of the play-offs saw them beaten by Barnsley (6-1 over two legs), a team that finished ten points behind them. Walsall are currently languishing in league two. After six games played, they’ve got 5 points and only one solitary victory.
Historically Walsall have lived in the shadows of the bigger Midlands clubs; Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Wolves and West Brom. They’ve never gotten beyond the fifth round of the FA Cup despite taking Watford to two replays in the 1986-87 campaign. The League Cup is mostly the same, but they did play Liverpool in the semi-final in 1983-84, drawing at Anfield before an unfortunate 2-0 reverse at Fellows Park. Trophies wise, they won League 2 twice. Once in 1960 and then again in 2007. They have four Birmingham Senior Cups, and bizarrely only three Walsall Senior Cups. Their highest finish, ever, is P6 in the second flight in 1898-99.
Walsall have played at four grounds and the most recent is the Bescot, or the “Banks’ Stadium” as it’s known for advertising purposes. The Bescot was opened as recently as 1990 and Walsall lost their first game there 4-0 to Aston Villa. Before the Bescot they lived about a quarter of a mile away at Fellows Park. To give you an idea of the dilapidation of the stadium, mere months after Walsall had left the roof of a stand collapsed under the weight of snow!
Onto the day of the game and Mike Kilby is joining me today. He’s driven up/across from Luton. He gets to me around 11am and we head off on the tremendous West Midlands rail network to the Bescot Stadium. It’s a relatively uneventful journey complete with a time saving shortcut in New Street that gets us on a train the Trainline app thought we couldn’t get to. On disembarking at the Bescot stop, we’re greeted by hippy slogans.
It’s all a bit confusing. It’s not really what I expected to see outside a football ground. Is this an attempt to chill out the visiting fans? It didn’t work with Mansfield. Due to our New Street navigation we’re here early enough to grab a pint or two so it’s off to the nearest pub, other than the Saddlers one, “Champy’s Bradford Arms”. Champy’s is what happens when an Indian restaurant completely takes over a local pub. To be fair to them, they’ve nailed it. It functions as a sports bar in the front, a restaurant in the back and it has a beer garden.
We stay in there watching Crystal Palace rinse Tottenham and I get to introduce Mike to the concept of mild. Something that only exists in any kind of quality in the midlands. To my delight, he’s a fan. My work here is done. We could have had food here, but Mike was eager for a pie at the game. So, it’s cheese & onion crisps and bacon fries. We positively power walk back to the ground and get there in a fraction of the time. Powered by Banks’ Mild.
At the ground there’s an immediate double failure. Firstly, I fail to meet up with James, my Walsall supporting season ticket holder mate, and Mike fails to get a pie as they only sell them “inside”. On entering the ground all the food stalls are closed. Sadness.
After a quick exploration of the outside of the ground we head in and for the level, League 2, it’s a very tidy ground. Being a new build (1990), it probably should be. I’m perhaps a little disappointed that they rebuilt the ground, and it still has beams supporting the roof on three sides.
Also, the toilets are surprisingly tiny. Any new build stadiums I’ve been to more recent than 1990 allow space for that sort of thing and general comfort.
We’re in the Poundland Stand, which is the larger of the two stands that run the length of the pitch. Opposite us is the shorter Community Stand, which is where the wheelchair area is. Off to our left is the mighty Homeserve Stand, which is where the bulk of the die-hard home supporters are. This includes my friend James and his dad. So, I get the chance to stroll around the ground, which you really can’t do at higher levels, and say hi. They’re the lads who chuck newspaper in the air when Walsall score. Which is an endearing sight but must be a bugger for the cleaners.
The away end is off to our right, which is the University of Wolverhampton stand. Every stand is absolutely plastered with advertising. Sell every inch lads! Get that money. The away fans chant “I’m Mansfield till I die”, which is frankly depressing. There are audible boos from that end of the ground when the teams take the knee, which shows you what kind of a place Mansfield is. To be fair to the travelling support they spend the entire game being loud and it’s a raucous atmosphere at their end despite the team’s shortcomings. They even set off a flare at one point.
There’s a mascot update here. We have “Swifty” who’s based on the club’s iconic swooping bird crest. If you buy a mascot package you get to “interact with Swifty”. I don’t know what that involves. Maybe chucking him some grain to nibble on? Helping him build a nest? Getting up at dawn to dig up worms?
The game has a fun and light-hearted atmosphere despite both teams having a precarious situation this season. Both are in real danger of slipping into non-league based on their respective starts. The fans are happy to be back at the games and it shows. A ball boy slips over early on and there’s a lovely little cheer that you only get from being at a game. In the home end there appears to be an entire cricket team, or people dressed like one. Maybe they were supposed to go to the test match that got cancelled.
As far as the game goes; Walsall boss it. George Miller is on loan here this season and he’s a huge bonus. He’s too good to be playing in League 2 and he scores twice. Walsall boss Matty Taylor (formally of West Ham and Portsmouth) has a nice day. His opposition number doesn’t. Nigel Clough is on his feet early, yelling and swearing as Mansfield cave in. He’s got them playing tiki-taka football. The kind of thing he was famous for. Lots of tidy short passes and quick movement but the players are simply not good enough to execute what he wants to do, and he quickly loses his rag.
In all honesty he seems like a bit of a prick, with small man syndrome. On an interview later on, which we watched on YouTube, he blamed the players and took no responsibility whatsoever for this shambles. He’s not cut out to be a manager. I ended up feeling bad for the Mansfield fans. When they got a late consolation goal one of their fans was on the pitch and got escorted out. He didn’t have long to wait for his mates. There were a lot of shirtless kids running around down there too. It’s one of the most aggressively happy fanbases, despite losing heavily, that I’ve seen. Fair play to them. I wonder if they ever got their tiger back?
Walsall enjoyed their afternoon also. George Miller is a godsend for them. 5,203 people in for this game. Capacity is 11,500. On the way out of the ground we’re fortunate enough to catch a train a few minutes after the game and headed back into Birmingham. Where we ran headlong into a huge fight just outside New Street station between West Brom fans and travelling Millwall supporters. I am not saying a word here. We walked around the trouble and had a lovely evening in Birmingham sinking pints before a trip to Forest the next day. That write-up is coming up soon but suffice to say Forest fans are not as happy now as Walsall fans. Or Mansfield fans. Or any fans I’ve encountered so far.
From me and Mike and this lad in a Playstation hat photobombing us, good day from Block M!