Nine rounds of the English League One regular season remain and, while Walsall is level on points with second-placed Wigan, one cannot help thinking that the Saddlers have frittered away their chance of automatic promotion.
Hiring Sean O’Driscoll to replace his good friends, Dean Smith and Richard O’Kelly, when they quit Walsall to join Brentford was a massive mistake. Walsall won each of its first three English League One matches under O’Driscoll without conceding a goal but the Saddlers registered only two victories in their subsequent 11 divisional games and that led the Saddlers board to make what must have looked like an impatient decision to most people on the outside.
The fact of the matter is that O’Driscoll took what one rated as English League One’s top team and turned it into a side that was a pale imitation of the side that Smith and O’Kelly had built over a number of years. O’Driscoll lost the Walsall dressing room in a matter of weeks and it was clear towards the end of his reign that the Saddlers were not playing for their boss. Walsall owner Jeff Bonser made the call to sack O’Driscoll following a 1-3 home loss to Barnsley and, since Jon Whitney assumed control of team affairs, the Saddlers have strung together three English League One wins. Walsall’s performances in getting the better of Chesterfield, Colchester and Fleetwood may have been a bit scratchy but the enthusiasm that was such a feature of its play under Smith and O’Kelly is back.
Naming rights sponsor SkyBet has opened a market on the English League One play-offs winner and one thinks that Walsall represents excellent value at odds of +500 .
Walsall is 10 points in front of seventh-placed Bradford in English League One and its goal difference is a whopping 14 goals better than the Bantams. Basically, one cannot see Walsall finishing outside the English League One top six, with the play-offs featuring the sides ranked third to sixth. It is difficult to see Walsall reeling in Burton, which is six points clear at the top of the English League One ladder, and Wigan’s run in is softer than that of the Saddlers. Also, Wigan’s squad is the deepest in English League One and the Latics have hit form at the right time.
With O’Driscoll gone one is willing to put a pen through Walsall’s recent English League One home losses to Barnsley, Millwall and Wigan – the true Saddlers were not on show in those matches. Walsall had beaten both Barnsley and Millwall on the road in English League One, while the Saddlers had drawn 0-0 at Wigan. Furthermore, Walsall had taken four English League One points off Burton and won its only encounter with Gillingham. One is willing to say that Walsall, if it plays to its potential, is English League One’s premier team and that, if it ends up contesting the play-offs, it will be entitled to clear favouritism. SkyBet‘s current odds of +500 are likely to drop to somewhere around the +250 mark if Walsall, as seems highly probable, ends up contesting the English League One play-offs alongside the likes of Barnsley, Gillingham and Millwall.
Whitney, an infectious character who has been Walsall’s jack of all trades – physiotherapist, part-time player and assistant manager – since 2003 has got the Saddlers back on track, reinstating England U19 defender Rico Henry after he had been frozen out during O’Driscoll’s tenure. There is a better balance to Walsall under Whitney than there was under O’Driscoll and, in the shape of Romaine Sawyers, the Saddlers boast English League One’s greatest talent.
For Walsall to succeed in the English League One play-offs it would need to excel away from its Banks’s Stadium base. That should not be a problem given that Walsall’s English League One away record is the best in the division, plus many of the Saddlers players experienced Wembley Stadium in last term’s English Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final.
Wallsall to win the Play-Offs
League One 2015/16