On a long-running thread on the UTS forum an interesting suggestion was made that relegation to League Two might not be such a disaster for Walsall FC.
This opinion, shared by more than a few supporters, stems from the belief that demotion would give Dean Keates and the club a platform to clear the decks and re-build the squad, to bring through some young players before returning to the third tier stronger and upwardly mobile.
There are merits to the concept, and the club at large certainly needs an opportunity to assess and rehabilitate, but it’s hard to feel this optimism doesn’t stem from memories of our last relegation to the fourth tier back in 2006.
On that occasion we did re-build, we did gain promotion within a year (as Champions no less) and we did have a re-energised side with some great young players. But 12 years on, the club is in a far more vulnerable position and League Two is a very different beast…
Should we be relegated, immediate automatic promotion or even a play-off place would be no certainty. There are some sizable clubs in a highly competitive fourth tier, and many playing budgets in League Two will rival and even exceed our own.
A perfect example is Luton, who have been attempting promotion to League One for 4 years. They proved a more attractive proposition for our key transfer target Jake Jervis in the last window having matched a bid of £125,000. Meanwhile, The Hatters have spent nearly double what Walsall have in agent fees over the past 12 months.
Outlay on the team would also be affected by a reduction of match day income, with a likely decrease in already struggling attendances and missed paydays from potential visitors such as Birmingham and Sunderland.
There is an irony that this, one of our poorer squads in recent years, is actually one largely bound together by two-year contracts - so the idea that relegation would allow us to get rid of the presumed dross at the core of the team is a hopeful one.
The squad is already threadbare, so the decision whether to move a player on or try to improve him at the club must be made whatever division we find ourselves in. If anything, under-performing players are more likely to be kept if we’re operating at a lower level.
Let’s not forget that Orient, Stockport and Tranmere have all dropped into League Two over the past decade with an opportunity to ‘re-build’. We haven’t seen or heard from them since.
Richard Money’s title-winning squad featured Scott Dann, Anthony Gerrard and Daniel Fox in the first team, with the likes of Troy Deeney, Manny Smith and Ishmel Demontagnac ready to breakthrough.
They all proved to be good players for the club, but their development was aided by playing in a team of senior professionals, including Dean Keates, who offered influence and character on and off the pitch.
It’s unfair, with the glory of hindsight, to compare the calibre of our latest crop of youngsters with that of 2006-07, but what’s sure is that current senior squad (by the admission of the new manager) is short of experience and leadership, and that’s essential to guiding young players into the first team.
Improving the core of the first team and creating an improved culture is an important part of giving promising players like Kory Roberts the right platform to develop. Again, that re-building work has to be done regardless of what division we’re in, but League One is surely a better level from which to do so.
Back on track
Dropping down a division isn’t going to benefit Walsall FC, but sleep-walking into this relegation battle is just the kick-up the backside the club needs.
Only two years ago the club proved just how well we can compete in League One – they did it through shrewd leadership, by sticking to a philosophy, by making bold decisions and building a sense of unity.
So let’s bank on solid management and ambition to get us back on track in League One, not a risky recuperation in the division below.