Monsieur Salut writes (and guess how easy it is to write Monsieur Slut by mistake): I knew some games would be a struggle for Who are You? and Walsall away this Saturday was already proving a challenge before we were duly drawn against them in the FA Cup for a week later. Richard Hall*, located by the usual online searches, agreed to have a go. So why not get him to do both games; why not go back to him for the return league game?
So Richard’s answers on the League One match, and revelations about his cultural tastes (Shostakovich fifth, the works of an American ‘Marxist humanist’ Raya Dunayevskaya and even a spot of Michael Jackson washed down with old world wine) will be followed next week by his FA Cup thoughts. It amounts to another great read in this series. And Richard knows the North East well, having worked in Middlesbrough, lived in Darlington and joined a friend for games at the SoL. But we’ll try to spare him a third set of questions …
Welcome to Salut! Sunderland. Just been mugging up on the Saddlers and learn that you have never finished higher that 14th in Division Two, the 1961-62 equivalent of the Championship. Has a footballing life restricted to being outside the higher reaches ever bothered you and if you do hanker after something grander, how could it be achieved?
Richard Hall: thank you very much! I’ve followed Walsall since 1979, and in that time we’ve had six promotions, five relegations, a visit to the Milk cup semi-final where we matched the champions (to be) of Europe, a paint pot Trophy final, a failed takeover, a new takeover involving a move to a (shonky and now tired) new ground, and a win in the Birmingham Senior Cup.
It’s been an epic rollercoaster. Prior to that we had been in the same division (old Division 2) since just before Brian Clough ended his career at Sunderland. Of course, the key statistics are that we have played more games in the equivalent of League 1 and have never won that goddam division. We were founder members of Division 2, Division 3 North, Division 4, and we have more applications for re-election (all successful because we are so lovable) than anyone else. We are the epitome of mid-table obscurity. I guess that we are seen as the equivalent of a younger sibling to the clubs immediately around us, and we pride ourselves on snubbing our noses at them.
Increasingly, the idea of a life outside the higher reaches doesn’t bother me, precisely because football is a business designed to amplify disillusionment and a craving for the impossible. It would be pleasing to anchor ourselves in the Championship, because at least we would make it to the third round of the cup each year, but that would require more resources and the history of the club suggest this is highly unlikely to emerge. The club has never been able to attract large numbers of supporters beyond a limited number of seasons, and so sustaining the revenue required to maintain a position higher up would be problematic.
Dean Keates is a Walsall stalwart, home town manager, former player of the season. The mix doesn’t always lead to success but do you see, early as it is, signs that he could do something with a club that is his as well as yours?
Depends what the “something” is, although I would settle for some Championship football and a cup run (not the Birmingham Senior Cup or Checkatrade). It’s a tough one, because he follows a man who was at times revered as a physio, but reviled as a manager (Jon Whitney). Keates’s appointment ended the flak the chairman was receiving (for a while at least), in part because we went out, actively, to attract a young, up-and-coming manager with a deep, emotional connection to the club.
Given that we haven’t done anything in this division since we were promoted back to it in 2007, other than one play-off campaign during which the wheels badly came off, there is an argument that he has little to lose in the short-term. He has also inherited (on extended contracts), or returned to, many of the players who struggled under Whitney, so alongside the budget there are restrictions.
He came from managing a Wrexham team that were difficult to score against, and many of us felt that he might be able to solve our defensive struggles, or at least work on them. That said, our start against weak opposition tended to cover up defensive frailties, because we had good possession, intent and partnerships in attack. We were also working very hard. However, we concede too many chances and when the wheels come off, they really come off, especially against mobile forward lines. This is something Keates and his coaching team need to work on.
One of the issues is whether he can use this season to get-to-grips with management at this level, and impose a willingness to work with several patterns of play. The emotional bond between fans, Keates and club will prove interesting if things start to go wrong. Of course, it is a results business, and at some point he will leave. In this, we hope he gets to choose, as Chris Nicoll did, but previous hero-managers like Ray Graydon and Alan Buckley have not had that option. It’s important to note that the enormous amount of hope that came in with him is being tempered down more rationally now the season is a third done.
Any thoughts on the ownership structure and what it can hope to achieve in its present form?
The majority shareholder is Jeff Bonser and he has dominated the governance of the club since 1992. However, the ground on which football club plays at the Banks’s Stadium is owned by the pension company of Mr Bonser and his brother. One of the issues is this separation of Walsall FC Ltd from its ground, and the level of the rent that is paid on a relatively small turnover, to service this sale-and-leaseback. Another major issue was the legacy of the ITV Digital collapse in the 2000s and the need to service loans falling due on an almost annual basis.
For many, governance and decision-making depends upon the desires of one man, and there is a question about whether he lost energy after the promotion of 2007. What does the club’s on- and off-field stagnation reflect? Mr Bonser has been doing this work pretty much unloved for 25 years (and has been involved at board level for longer); it has to take its toll. However, we have also moved to a new ground, invested in a massive Sunday market(!), installed a huge advertising hoarding next to the M6, been promoted into the Championship and played at that level for the first time since the 1960s, and there has been our traditional level of obscure stability.
One of the problems has been a lack of engagement with supporters, including a long exile from attending games. The Walsall Supporters’ Trust is the 10th larger shareholder and is able to ask questions at AGM, but there is limited ability to hold the club to account. It feels like we are waiting for someone to buy Mr Bonser out, and for a while we hoped the council might step-in.
Football fans are always looking for a saviour, and outsourcing hope. Whether a supporter-backed approach could work is difficult to know, but this would need to be a partnership, which accepted that building an improving football club takes time and revenue. To many fans, the ownership structure blocks this because it ties the success of the football club to the whims of an individual who already benefits from the status quo. The issue is, what is to be done?
What’s all this about? If you missed the clues in the introduction, read on …
We have been warned that life may become more difficult than we’ve had it so far in League One. Who are the key Walsall players who could make us sit up and think twice about our bright start to the season?
Ah yes, as Forest, Leeds, Bradford, and on and on and on, have found out to our ongoing amusement. So, Liam Roberts in goal is a good shot stopper (as he has to be given the number of chances we concede). Our erstwhile, 1950s throwback midfielder George Dobson is high-energy and has the ability to take the game by the scruff of the neck, especially when partnered with the terrier-like Liam Kinsella or Isaiah Osborne’s ability to break opposition. Finally, on their day, our attacking partnerships of Josh Ginnelly, Zeli Ishmail, Kieron Morris (two of the three will play), and Morgan Ferrier, have enough movement and interplay to cause defences problems.
I notice good cups runs, promotions (once finishing five points ahead of Man City in the race for second tier status during their darker days) and a fairly recent if losing Wembley experience. What have been your own highlights?
A 5-1 home win over Northampton Town in January 1980 taught me the joy of tiki-taka, under Alan Buckley’s intelligent leadership. It was a joy to watch his teams in the early 1980s. Staying up on the last day of the season away at Sheffield United and relegating them in 1981. A 2-2 draw at Anfield against the champions of Europe (to be) in February 1984 was the apogee of possibility. The meetings of the Save Walsall Action Group were a first foray into organising and supporter involvement at a club.
A backs-to-the-wall, hot-and-humid 0-0 draw at Gigg Lane in May 1995, which gave us promotion (after three games in six days) was a glorious, cussed release. Battering Oldham 3-1 in May 1999, in order to gain promotion in a season when we had been tipped for relegation. Finally winning something, even if it was the League Two title, secured in Swindon in May 2007 with a last-gasp volley from 25 yards from Dean Keates – I have never celebrated a point as much.
Any Ian Roper last-ditch, diving tackle, during which he would go full Bobby Moore. Watching Alan Buckley play was always a gift. Remembering Vinnie Samways dominate Michael Carrick at the Boleyn ground still brings a smile to my face.
And the lowest points as a supporter?
The sacking of Alan Buckley, when Terry Ramsden took over.
John Barnwell as manager, including our 15 game losing streak in 1988-89. NB this ended at Roker Park and we did the double over you that season, hilariously. Being forced to leave Fellows Park because it was decrepit and falling down. The reality that my granddad’s knees would not let him continue to take me to games. Realising that all my good intentions as chair of the supporters trust would not lead to meaningful negotiation with the club – although I was a bit of a combative a***.
It’s people and places really: games come and go; relegations come and go; you draw some, you lose sone. That said, losing the second leg of the Milk Cup semi-final versus Liverpool was devastating. I was convinced we were going to do a Newport County and get to the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup.
Which players over the years have given you most pleasure in Walsall colours?
Alan Buckley was the player-manager in my first season when we got promoted. He played the game on the ground, had great movement, made space for himself and others, and could finish.
The most gifted player I have seen since was Romaine Sawyers, now at Brentford, although he divides/divided opinion. Jimmy Walker in goal was a hero and incredibly courageous.
There are other players like Kenny Mower, Ian Roper and Chris Marsh who played hundreds of games in defence, and who always showed up. I love watching them for that fact alone, and they were all involved in amazing seasons.
David Preece was probably the best local-ish, young, creative midfielder I have seen – a dream to watch as he dictated play before he went to Luton. Dean Keates and Vinnie Samways were each great defensive midfielders, whilst Jeff Peron who went to Portsmouth was probably the best attacking midfielder I saw. I also always had a soft spot for Matty Fryatt, who as an incredibly young player had to shore up the abysmal Paul Merson-managed, soon-to-be-relegated team of 2005-06.
Who should have been allowed nowhere near the Bescot or, if you’re old enough, Fellows Park?
Fans will have all sorts of players that they loathe for not trying, or taking the p***, or letting the club down, or being a disgrace to the shirt. However, a special antipathy is reserved for the end of Paul Merson’s managerial reign, and that of Colin Lee, alongside John Barnwell. For some, the owners are the issue, including Ken Wheldon for trying to take us to play at Birmingham City in the 80s.
What did you make of Sunderland’s sharp decline?
Unsurprised, to be honest. Ellis Short’s reign was a nightmare – poor managerial decisions and the squandering of cash, Paolo di Canio, Adam Johnson, the resignation of David Miliband, the complete disconnect with the supporters. It was an unfolding car crash, in particular from 2012 onwards, and only a matter of time. But at least the debts are written off, right? It also makes us think of Leeds, and other ownership structures that have promised so much, and delivered so little, rooted in ego, poor decision-making, the idea that football clubs can be managed as businesses, with a shocking use of resources.
Any other thoughts on the club, the fans, the city and region, Jack Ross?
I used to work in Middlesbrough and live in Darlington. It’s bloody cold isn’t it? And I have never seen an area of the country where the people carry so much on their shoulders, other than Clydeside.
That said, I love the area and have spent many enjoyable afternoons at the Stadium of Light – I have a good friend who is a season ticket holder. The 1-1 draw with Newcastle I saw was probably the most antagonistic and angry game I have ever been to.
In part, this is my takeaway, in terms of Sunderland (and even the barcode army) – this is a region with a very deep material and cultural history, with a very rich footballing culture, and which has lacked success in most of our lifetimes. In part, that connects to the socio-economics of the region, but I wonder if the club has generated enough of a focus on itself, rather than in opposition to Newcastle. Too often, and in particular recently under Ellis Short, it has spent too long searching for its soul and struggling with itself. I hope it can move on now.
Hand on heart, where will our clubs finish this season?
We will finish 16th. You will finish either first or second. It matters, so you will want to finish first.
Do you think cheating – diving and the rest – is as big a problem at this level as higher, and can VAR help eliminate it?
Playing football professionally is work, and football fans forget this fact too readily. Players are selling their labour-power in order to earn a wage. Why wouldn’t they cheat? We all steal time or resources from our workplaces, or do things to shortcut processes, or try to con those with power-over us.
Given the nature of football, what it means, the rewards, the fragility and precarious nature of employment, and because players want to win (it’s competitive, right?) the rules are always being pushed, and boundaries stretched.
League 1 is not European competition, and so much of the stuff that really irritates us is less prevalent. It feels like a cleaner game, although you wouldn’t think so from the grief referees get. Technologies are always used in order to discipline a labour force, and VAR is designed to give us fair or clean decisions, both by disciplining referees and players.
However, it removes some subjectivity and agency, and therefore we lose some of the human. For me, the issue isn’t whether cheating can be eliminated, but what do we lose in the process? Is it possible to use VAR to remove some of the power and privilege of certain clubs? The risk is that we eliminate the human and move to the algorithm that is designed based on parameters set by the privileged.
One step the authorities should take to improve the lot of ordinary supporters?
Ticket prices appear to be an outrage, but I understand the value of labour-power and why clubs must charge what they do. The starting point would be properly listening to supporters, by fully engaging them in governance and decision-making. However, football inside capitalism is reflective of the power of business and transnational finance capital. The space inside which the lot of ordinary supporters can be improved is conditioned by that fact.
Will you be at our game? What will be the score?
Yes, before I leg it to Leeds to watch Mogwai in concert. The league game will either end with us thrashing you 4-1 because we love being the underdogs, or us getting done really badly because sometimes the wheels really do come off. There will be no in between (but I am really rubbish at predicting).
* Richard Hall on himself: I have supported Walsall since 1979. Between 1999 and 2009 I chaired the Walsall Supporter’ Trust, and during this time we became the 10th largest shareholder and tried to hold the club to account. Now I write for the Walsall FC site The No Nobhead Policy. I live in Leicester, where I work at De Montfort University as a professor of education, and I am also involved in a couple of educational co-operatives. My favourite Shostakovich Symphony is number five, my favourite Michael Jackson track is Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, I like an old world red wine and I’m currently reading the work of Raya Dunayevskaya. All the lols.
Interview: Colin Randall