Result: Walsall 2-2 Darlington (FA Cup First Round)
Venue: Bescot Stadium (Saturday 9th November 2019, 3pm)
The FA Cup always offers up options for cheaper visits to league clubs and, as such, I usually have a look a little further afield to try and get the most out of it. As such, I did have a slight flirt with a long trip out to East Anglia and Portman Road, before deciding it was probably a little close to the time, and I’d be better off waiting and planning this one out properly. Then, I figured there was a game that was a little under-the-radar and that was at the Bescot Stadium, one of the few grounds I needed to get to “properly tick” off Walsall’s home by watching the Saddlers’ first team. You see, I’d visited quite a few years earlier for a youth team game which featured a few players who’ve gone on to feature in the senior ranks, but this can’t really go towards the true ’92’, can it? Regardless, I say no and to the Bescot it was.
In addition, a possible cupset was on the cards too, as re-emerging Darlington were the visitors and seemed to have a decent away following in the offing, judging by the bus numbers and requests from all around the country. As such, when I was propositioned by Darlo fan Charlotte to “get in the away end”, I thought it’d be rude to not back the non-league side I’d once seen play Northwich Victoria, away, at a mixed blue/green/white-clad, half dilapidated Valley Road ground in Flixton, back i’t’day. Ah, the joys of the non-league system! Anyhow, I grabbed the train out of Manchester (after securing tickets for a trip North of the border in a couple of weeks) and was en route down to Birmingham’s New Street station, where I’d connect onwards from. Well, that was the plan, anyway, and all seemed to be ok….until I arrived.
Delayed. Delayed. Delayed. “This train is delayed by approximately 36 minutes”. All these met my eyes and ears as I traversed the walkways of New Street, attempting to sort out my best options for the short hop out to the north east of the city. Eventually, it turned out that one train, that itself was delayed by 25 minutes, was actually due to leave about the same time as I should have done anyway and within all the madness, calm soon descended and I arrived into Walsall, bright (well, ok, not so bright) and early, at a little after midday. Drizzle hung over the town as I arrived, and I hoped this wasn’t a precursor for what I was about to witness a few hours later. With that in mind, I felt like I needed a drink or two…or three – you get the picture – to calm my nerves!
The Red Lion was first up and it was something a little special inside, a spiral iron staircase jutting out into the midst of the bar area, which added some fine character to a place that already looked interesting enough from the outside beforehand! A pint of Stella (£3.80) began the day here whilst I sorted out my acca (which, shock, horror, went awry swiftly) before I headed off back past the dulcet tones of a sole singer outside and through the precinct area and to a few pubs that are grouped in together. How thoughtful. First up was a small seemingly sports-centric pub by the name of the Old Bailey, where my curse of picking the beer that’s not on returned, and so, after being offered the hell-in-a-glass that is Carling, I was forced to settle for a Coors – though the £2.40 price tag went some way to easing the pain.
Next up was a pair of pubs just in behind the large, dominating St. Matthew’s Building that houses the Wetherspoons – these being, namely, the Registry and the Tap & Tanner. The Registry seemed to have been a chain or something in a previous life judging by its wide, open-plan layout, but it was ok enough and a pint of Heineken went down well. The Tap & Tanner lies just across the walk from the Registry and was really rather busy. Indeed, it took a fair bit of time to eventually get served due to there only being two on (I think, anyway), but eventually I was in possession of an Amstel which, at just the £2.70, was a fair bit more economical than Cambridge’s city-spanning offerings from the week before! Having lost track of the army cadets that I usually like to purchase a paper poppy from as they likely headed to more weather-protected selling areas, I instead bought one from here. It proceeded to last me no more than half an hour before parting company, though I did find another that had made a bid for freedom and decided to repurpose it and cut my losses!
Walsall is a market town and administrative centre within the West Midlands area, sited some eight miles to the North East of Birmingham. Historically a part of Staffordshire, it is part of the wider Metropolitan Borough of Walsall which also encompasses the likes of Bloxwich, Darlaston, Willenhall, Pelsall and Brownhills. It’s name is thought to derive from the words “Walh Halh” (valley of the Welsh speakers – these being the Brython peoples) and is first referenced under the name ‘Walesho’ in a document dating from 1002, though is omitted from the Domesday Book, despite many surrounding areas, such as those referenced above, are included, though this could be down to an administrative error, as it’s thought a manor was held in the area by William FitzAnculf. By the 13th century, Walsall had become a market town – introduced in 1220 – and was later visited by Queen Elizabeth the I and queen consort, wife of Charles I and mother of his successors (if we ignore king in all but name Cromwell) Charles II and James II, Henrietta Maria.
It largely remained as a small market town right through until the Industrial Revolution, when it swiftly grew by over 85,000 people and trades of chains, buckles, plated ware and, of course, saddles, became focal points. It received gas lighting in the early-to-mid 1800’s and more improvements to the market area and required drainage systems were introduced, whilst the railway arrived in the town in 1847, some 48 years after canals had first linked Walsall to the larger cities surrounding it – though, incidentally, Bescot had been served by the Grand Central Railway for almost 10 years previous. It also has good, regular bus links to surrounding areas and easy motorway access, though lost it’s tram service and aerodrome during the early-to-mid 1900’s.
During the First World War, Walsall lost circa 2000 men in combat, whilst the cenotaph they are commemorated upon is located upon damage caused by a German Zeppelin bomb which killed three, including the mayoress of the town, whilst the damage can still be seen on the corner of a town centre club. The war also saw two local men – John Henry Carless and Frederick Gibbs – receive the Victoria Cross, the latter of which was a flying ace that, when World War II broke out, gave up his officer’s position in favour of returning to the ranks. Post-war, the first Wurlitzer organ in Great Britain was installed within the town’s New Picture House and the town would later become more transformed in looks as the slums were replaced by estates and tower blocks whilst, from 1980, The Saddlers Centre has become a focal point in the centre of Walsall, located next to the station, though it was tested by the appearance of a tornado a year later!
Aside from a number of religious-centric people, Walsall has been home to successful business men such as one-time chairmen and Chief Executive of Ford and the NHS, actors Frank Windsor, Corrie’s Audrey (Sue Nicholls), Eastenders’ serial killer Lucas Johnson (Don Gilet) (as well as real Cannock Chase serial killer Raymond Morris), Meera Syal and Jeffrey Holland and actress/model Erin O’Connor, whilst also counting musical alumni such as Fleetwood Mac singer Dave Walker, Slade’s Noddy Holder, lead Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford, DJ Goldie and, more recently, Connie Talbot and Jorja Smith. Sporting-wise, Walsall is/has been home to the likes of Paralympian swimmer Ellie Simmonds, sprinter Mark Lewis-Francis, UFC and Cage Rage MMA fighter Vaughan Lee Harvey, England Test cricketer David Brown and in football; former referee Terry Holbrook, former Wolves, Celtic, Derby and Cardiff man Lee Naylor and former Walsall player and manager, Dean Keates.
My final pre-game stop was to be at the Black Country Arms which, like a pub I’d visited in Halesowen on a far better weather day earlier this season, terms itself as a ‘real ale speciality’ pub. Indeed, as I entered, the bar was far more modern than the building itself – you’d not really have much of a clue from the outside décor if you hadn’t done any research I’d say. Anyhow, I opted to play it rather safe and go for something a little weaker – and so went for a pint of Longwood Pale Ale (£3.20), before returning to the strange shopping centre/station entrance combo that Walsall is home to. Unfortunately, the trains here were delayed too, but not by too much to threaten my getting to the Bescot for kick-off luckily, although the automatic voice on the train caused some panic for some fellow match-going fans from Darlington, as it announced the next stop as being the one further along the line.
I arrived at the Bescot in good time and grabbed a programme off of two guys just before they so happened to head for the newly-arrived coachful of travelling fans in search of some bonus sales. The rain continued to fall all the way through the queuing phase and didn’t really go off whatsoever throughout the whole game. Luckily, the away end is rather sheltered from the elements, especially towards the rear of the stand where I’d, for some reason, been freely told to head! The Bescot is quite a nice ground in my opinion, it’s large two-tiered end (which sadly no-longer features dinosaur advertised tiles) dominates the remainder of the stadium, all of which consist of pretty similar one-tiered, all-seater stands. A food bar is located in the corner of the away end and the Main Stand, which looks a bit more traditional in appearance than the rest. The tunnel and dugouts jut out in front of the Main Stand too – though all home stands were, at best, sparsely populated for today’s game – whilst the away end made up about half of the total attendance. Good effort. Anyway, here’s the story of the Saddlers….
Founded in 1888 as Walsall Town Swifts, after an amalgamation of Walsall Town (1877) and Walsall Swifts (1879), the club began life at the Chuckery, which had been home of both clubs prior to the merger. Their first game was a Birmingham Charity Cup Final against Aston Villa which ended goalless, though Villa would be awarded the trophy after a disagreement over the venue for the replay and after playing a couple of friendlies against Football League opposition, the new Walsall club began playing in the Midland Association, their first game there against Crewe Alexandra ending in a 2-2 draw – with Walsall going on to finish 3rd at the end of the season. After three years in the Football Alliance, Swifts were admitted to the Football League in 1892, Swifts became a founder member of the new Second Division and moved to West Bromwich Road after complaints from residents local to the Chuckery after a sole year there as a league club.
The change wouldn’t prove lucky and they failed to gain re-election in 1895 and moved again to long-term home Fellows Park. Their first pieces of silverware came around this time too with the Birmingham Senior Cup being won in 1897 & 1898 (along with another almost a century later in 1994) and the Walsall Senior Cup lifted in 1889 (added to in 2015 & ’17). Upon their joining of the Midland League after relegation, the club dropped the suffixes in their name and moved into the Midland League as, simply, Walsall F.C. and again spent just the one year there before returning back to the Football League’s Second Division ranks. They finished 6th in 1899, which actually remains the club’s best league finish to date, though this success soon faded and relegation was suffered via non-re-election again just two years later. The club played the next two seasons back in the Midland League prior to a switch into the Birmingham League in 1903, where they remained for fourteen years, alongside a two-year spell with a team in the Southern League, following their election as founding members.
They would stay in the Southern League until after the end of World War I, when they again returned to the Football League, upon its expansion to becoming a three-division competition in 1921. They took a spot in the Third Division North and have remained a league club ever since. Success remained rather thin on the ground for the Saddlers though and a 3rd placed finish and first Staffordshire Senior Cup win in 1923 (added to in 1927, ’29 & ’68) would be the closest Walsall would come to promotion prior to World War II, though did upset Arsenal 2-0 in the 1933-’34 FA Cup, a season in which the Gunners would go on to become league champions. The next year saw another decent cup run, as Walsall reached the Third Division North Cup Final, though would lose out to Stockport County at Maine Road.
Post-WWII, the Saddlers competed in the pre-league resumption Third Division South cup and reached the final of this too, but suffered a repeat of their North final appearance, with AFC Bournemouth running out 2-0 victors. 1948 saw Walsall come close to promotion, ending up in 3rd place, before the 1950’s signalled troubling times for the club, re-election being required just to remain in the league on four consecutive occasions – finishing bottom from 1952-’54 and second bottom in 1955. Strong attendances went a fair way to ensuring that Walsall maintained their place as a league club, though would have to be happy with becoming a founding member of the Fourth Division in 1958 and, in doing so, had the distinction of being a founder of each of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th divisions. However this preceded a strong run for the Saddlers, a run which saw successive promotions lead to the club being in Division 2 for season 1961-’62, with Walsall lifting the Fourth Division title (their first league title in their existence) and ending up as 1961 Third Division runners-up.
Just two seasons would be spent back in the Second Division though, before Walsall would be relegated back to the Division 3, a final day defeat to relegation rivals Charlton Athletic condemning the club to the drop, with the Addicks surviving. Walsall remained in the third-tier until 1979 when they suffered the drop back into the 4th Division once again. The Saddlers would spend just one year back in the bottom division though, prior to returning to Division 3, upon which they went on to consolidate their position at that level over the next few seasons. 1982 saw Walsall narrowly miss out on a cup final appearance and place in Europe, when a run to the semi-final of the League Cup (which featured another victory over Arsenal, this time at Highbury) saw the club take Liverpool all the way after a 2-2 draw in the first-leg at Anfield. However, it would prove a bridge too far for the Saddlers, as Liverpool eventually saw off their stubborn opponents 2-0 in the second game. 1988 saw the club reach the Third Division play-offs and achieve promotion via this method – overcoming Bristol City in a replayed final at Fellows Park by a thumping score-line of 4-0.
Walsall’s return to the Second Division was again brief, lasting just one campaign, though this paled in significance when you consider they almost went out of business altogether soon afterwards, but despite seeing the danger off, a second consecutive relegation again saw the club in Division 4 by the turn of the decade, and this drop coincided with beginning life at the Bescot Stadium: the club’s new home following their move from their almost century-long home, Fellows. After a few years of re-setting the groundworks, Walsall were promoted to the newly-designated Division 2 in 1995 and 1999 saw them secure the runners-up placing in Division 2 and promotion to Division 1. However, they would last just the one season in the second-tier, being relegated again on the final day, although they would return at the first attempt after overcoming Reading, after extra-time, in the play-off final at the Millennium Stadium. 2004 saw the drop back to Division 2 come around once again, a horrible loss of form seeing them go down by just a single goal. Agonising, but it would soon get worse, as poor form under Paul Merson saw him out of a job and the Saddlers relegated to League 2 in 2006.
Once again, the club spent just one season in a division, being promoted from League 2 as champions, securing the title on the last day via a last minute Dean Keates strike. The Saddlers then embarked on a run of seven seasons of largely mid-table finishes, with little threat of league movement either way, although they came mighty close to relegation in 2011, escaping the drop-zone by just a sole point after a fine upturn in form under Dean Smith. 2015 saw Walsall make their first Wembley final appearance, as they reached the Football League Trophy’s final tie, but were on the wrong end of a 2-0 score-line at the hands of Bristol City. Smith left during the following season, with Walsall eventually just missing out on that year’s play-offs, though the loss of much of the playing staff from that team led to three years of struggle, culminating with relegation at the end of last season back to League 2, with Keates replaced as boss by Darrell Clarke for this campaign.
After a minutes silence of remembrance,- we got going on this wet, dull, overcast West Midlands afternoon. Grabbing a hot dog (all that was left) from the food bar, I headed up into the away end for the beginning of the first half, prior to re-locating more into the middle as I said earlier on. A fairly slow start came and went during the first quarter-hour, before Darlington began to threaten the far-end goal guarded by Saddlers’ keeper Jack Rose. Omar Holness was denied by Rose on said 15-minute mark, before the same duo again met in duel, but this time Holness would come out on to – rifling a low drive beyond Rose from close range to spark jubilant scenes within the massed away support.
The travelling Quakers didn’t exactly have all that much to worry about overall either, and instead it was the non-league side who would go close to doubling their lead half-way through the first period, Stephen Thompson seeing a long-range drive kept out by the busy home ‘keeper. Indeed, it took until around ten minutes before the break for Walsall to really work Liam Connell, the visiting stopper denying Liam Hardy in fairly routine fashion on a couple of occasions in quick-fire time, with the Saddlers going closest to levelling the scores on the stroke of half time, when Wes McDonald’s initial close-range effort was kept out by Connell, before he then rattled the crossbar moments later. A let off for the visitors, perhaps, but as it was, half-time arrived and the “cupset” was well and truly on at the Bescot.
During half-time, Charlotte introduced a guy to me (who did tell me his name, though I couldn’t make it out over the noise, so will be mentioned as either Gary or Dave from hereon) which I’m sure he immediately regretted happening as I likely bored the crap out of him for the next 40 minutes or so – though hopefully I did go someway to lessening the nerves (though my match-reading wasn’t quite on point!)?! Anyhow, back out in the elements, the players were soon back playing and Jarrett Rivers immediately went close for the visitors, whilst Walsall’s dangerman Hardy headed wide down the other end moments later. Joe Wheatley saw an effort tipped onto the upright and the experienced Mat Sadler also went close as the pair traded chances at either end through to the hour but, from then on in, it was all the Saddlers, as Darlo sat back on their slender lead; a decision I immediately commented on as something that might just come back to bite them…
With the outstanding Will Hatfield covering every blade of grass in the meantime, to try and negate the space being afforded to Walsall, the hosts saw numerous chances come and go and it looked as though Darlington’s back-line might just hang on to advance directly within the ever descending gloom. Elijah Adebayo went close on a pair of occasions, before he somehow failed to convert into an open net from just a few yards out – the ball falling to his feet around the six-yard line, but the forward could only shovel the ball clear of the crossbar and into the two-tiered stand behind. He stood there with head in hands, the scene mirrored by a number of home fans facing him.
As the game entered its final minutes, Dan Scarr was sent off for a fairly needless second yellow and it well and truly looked as though that could be the final nail in Walsall’s coffin. But no. A comeback of WWE’s Undertaker proportions followed, as the Saddlers first drew level, a ball back ran into the path of Caolan Lavery, just perfectly for him to place a low shot beyond Connell and into the back of the net. A brief, stunned silence fell upon the away following upon this strike, and moments later it looked as though it was curtains for the visitors, when Connell failed to get a good connection on an Alfie Bates corner – the ball deflecting in off his attempted punch and seemingly going down as a goal from a corner.
Entering stoppage time, the scoreboard read 2-1, and it looked as though Walsall had clinched victory from the proverbial jaws of defeat. This especially seemed the case as Ben Hedley was dismissed, again for a second yellow….but this is the FA Cup after all. On (at least) the 97th minute, Darlington won a corner and everyone was thrown forwards. I’d already escaped the massed ranks crammed in the stand just above me and watched on from pitch-level for the final few minutes. As such, I was hovering around the exit in expectation of a swift exit upon the now imminent home win; but then in came the free-kick, won by the aforementioned, impressive Hatfield.
Connell was up there. Everyone in black-and-white was up there. Everyone in red was back there. The ball soon joined them and after a bit of pandemonium in the box, it ran loose and into the path of Joe Wheatley at the back-post and Wheatley, totally unmarked, rammed the ball home to spark absolute *ahem* scenes within the Quakers faithful. What a finish! What a game! What a result of Darlington. If you can’t win, get a home replay on live TV. The magic arrived early at the Bescot, and just like the trains during the day, returned very, very late on. 2-2, full-time.
After the game, I beat a hasty exit into the chilly evening air and left the jubilant Darlo fans to their celebrating as I did so. I’d already figured I could break up the walk back to the centre with a couple of pub stops which were nicely located to do so. The first of these was the Sir Charles Napier, just off the main road itself and was quite full as I entered ahead of the majority of the rush. I was asked by a guy if Walsall had won – despite Final Score being on – and responded by saying it finished 2-2. “They won?” came the reply. I can only try my best! A quick Coors and a welcome warm was had in a very traditional, bench-seating lay-out, before I continued on towards the Bradford Arms a short distance away, I first opted for a pint of the lesser-seen Cobra, but the (I presume) landlady wasn’t happy with the quality and so I was given the cheaper options again; and once more it was Coors that won out. Coor blimey.
Finishing up shortly after Germany’s women had netted at Wembley as Phil Neville’s fall from grace continued on, I returned back down the main road and into the town centre once again. With time very much at a premium, I paid what was planned to be a swift visit to the aforementioned Wetherspoon’s for a Hooch, before returning, once again, to the station – this time though I had seen that delays were still on the go and so had a little more time than first expected, which was welcome as it cut down my wait back in Birmingham. Once on the go, the journey back went smoothly and that was that and the Bescot was finally, and properly, done. It was a good day out despite the weather, the Darlo fans creating a great atmosphere and the late action at both ends was something else. Pubs were good value and the only shame was how sparse the rest of the ground was attended. But anyway, both sides must do it again up at Blackwell Meadows. Attentions turn to the draw and, first, next week’s action. It’s got something to live up to….!
Game: 9 (bonus points for mad ending)
Value For Money: 7