An Inspiration For The Youngsters:
They were heroes thenâ€¦â€¦
Stoke City 0 Walsall 2, F.A Cup Third Round, 22nd January 1966
Walsall Team: Carling, Gregg, Harris, Sissons, Bennett, Athey, Riley, Clarke, Kirby, McMorran, Taylor.
Itâ€™s strange what makes people start following a football team. In the past, in most cases, Iâ€™m sure, it was fathers taking sons along to games that got them hooked. Nowadays itâ€™s different with the over abundance of football on the TV and thatâ€™s the reason for so many Manchester United and Arsenal shirts being seen on the streets of Walsall and other towns around the country.
Unfortunately, I had a deprived childhood as far as that was concerned. It was my dadâ€™s fault, as he seemed to have either a death wish or a masochistic desire to be the most hated man in the World. Not content with being a Stokie (the â€œNeilâ€ is after Neil Franklin), he was also a time and motion man and a football referee to boot! The outcome of all that was, because he was refereeing in the West Midland League on Saturday afternoons, I did not get taken to games by him and my football education started very late (although I do remember him taking me to Fellows Park in the late fifties when he was Secretary of the Bloxwich Combination and sitting in the Directorsâ€™ â€œboxâ€, which was as uncomfortable as the rest of the main stand!). To make matters worse, none of my friends at Junior school were football fans and it was only on going to the local grammar school (ironically a rugby playing establishment) that I started going to Fellows Park on anything like a regular basis.
It was Dad who gave the first big encouragement, however, as he convinced me during our 62/3 season in the old second division to go and see the Saddlers play Stoke, so I could see his hero, Stanley Matthews, play. Naturally enough, he was injured!
I carried on going to Fellows Park during the next couple of seasons on a reasonably regular basis and even went to the 1965 League Cup tie at the Hawthorns, to see us lose 3 â€“ 1, but there was no way I could have been called a passionate Saddlers fan, as it was always more a good day out with the mates. All that was to change one January afternoon at, of all places, the Victoria Ground, Stoke.
Walsall had started their FA Cup run reasonably well that season, beating Swansea 6 â€“ 3 and Aldershot 2 â€“ 0 away and were rewarded with an away tie against a top flight side, in the shape of Stoke City. Stoke werenâ€™t amongst the best teams in the Division at the time, but did have some household names, in the shape of Maurice Setters, Dennis Violett and Peter Dobing.
Walsall at the time had the usual mixture of jouneymen pros, first Division rejects and home grown players, one of whom, Alan Clarke, was predicted to have a bright future ahead of him, and we were lying in mid table in the third division.
My mother at the time was a shift supervisor at William Bates in Hospital Street and one of the workers there was a Walsall regular. He knew that I went to see the Saddlers most weeks and asked her if I wanted to go. What with the Stoke City connections via my father, how could I refuse?
What followed on that Saturday was the kind of thing legends are made of.
Because of the colour clash, we lined up that day in claret and blue, the kit having reputedly been borrowed from Aston Villa. That in itself seemed to be a good omen, as, 33 years earlier, we had borrowed a blue and white kit from Coventry for the famous victory over Arsenal at the same stage of the Cup.
The game started with the home side on top, with Vernon and Setters going close, but the drama really started in 15 minutes in. Jimmy McMorran, who had passed a late fitness test, was brought down by Vernon and left limping. Substitutes had been introduced to the League that season, but the F.A., lagging behind the times as usual, had not changed the Cup rules, so it looked like we would have to play the remaining 75 minutes with only 10 fit men.
Howard Riley, a traditional bandy legged right winger, took the resulting free kick, the ball bounced off George Kirby, rebounded back to Riley, who hit a 20 yard half volley screaming into the top right hand corner of the net. A goal worthy of a man who had played in a Cup Final for Leicester.
By this time, McMorran had left the field and we played the rest of the half with only ten men. Stoke powered forward and threw everything at the Walsall rearguard. The defence stood up to the task, throwing bodies in the way of shots and tackling like men possessed. Stoke even got the ball into the back of the net, courtesy of a shot from Violett, but the Saddlers managed to convince the ref that the ball had, in fact, gone through a hole in the side netting.
The Walsall fans were looking forward to getting to the break with the team still ahead, when, in first half injury time, the drama took another twist.
From a break, Clarke chased the ball into the area, only for the Stoke goalie, Irvine, to get there first. What happened in that challenge, no one but the two players probably know, but as â€œSnifferâ€ turned away, Irvine aimed a kick at him. The referee pointed immediately to the penalty spot and Clarke ran lazily up to stroke the ball home. (A sign of how much the game has changed there â€“ it would have been an automatic red card nowadays!).
Jimmy McMorran returned to the fray in the second half, limping about on the left wing, purely for nuisance value, but the game turned into one way traffic. The Walsall defence stood firm against everything thrown at them, but the real battle to watch was the one between Maurice Setters and George Kirby. Neither was a player to shirk a challenge and both had their disciplinary problems over the years, but, as Setters played further and further forward, trying to get the elusive goal, Kirby matched him all of the way. If it had been a boxing match, the referee might well have stopped it before both men took too much punishment. (The battle would be rejoined at Fellows Park the following season in the League Cup and was just as tough!).
Finally, just after a Colin Taylor piledriver had been saved by Irvine at the second attempt, the final whistle went and we had achieved a famous victory. (In another curious parallel with the 1933 Arsenal game, Irvine never played for them again and was shipped out to non League football, just as Chapman had got rid of Tommy Black in 1933).
So why does this game mean so much to me? After all, we had put almost as much into the defeat at the Albion in the League Cup the previous year, only to lose narrowly.
This was the day which changed my view of the Saddlers forever. The men who had played and fought that Saturday were no longer mere mortals, but had taken on the status of giants. Stan Bennett, brave as a lion and ever noticeable with his blond hair, throwing himself enthusiastically into every challenge. The silky skills and passing ability of the enigmatic Scotsman, Jimmy McMorran, a player I will talk about for hours to this day. The solidity and dependability of full back Frank Gregg and the leadership skills of John Harris, a man whose Walsall career would be tragically cut short through injury. The incredible athleticism of Nick Athey, who, despite his lack of inches, seemed to be able to out jump 6 footers at will. The battling qualities of George Kirby, always ready for a fight (in the right way, as well as the wrong sometimes). The powerful running and incredible shooting of the barrel chested Walsall legend, Colin â€œThe Cannonballâ€ Taylor. Above all, there was the sight of a man who was obviously destined for greatness, who seemed to stroll through a game displaying a kind of arrogance which complimented his skills and goalscoring perfectly, Alan Clarke. (Iâ€™ve been a sucker for that arrogant streak ever since and still think the greatest sight in football was the expression on Eric Cantonaâ€™s face after he scored).
If I close my eyes, I can still see the pitch at the Victoria Ground and the players taking the plaudits of the crowd at the end of the game â€“ I was hooked now and forever!