A few weeks back, news emerged of Jon Whitney being sacked at Walsall. It was news I’d been fearing, as I could only see one man taking his place: Wrexham manager Dean Keates.
Keates absolutely loves Walsall. I’ve always believed it’s the only club he loves more than Wrexham. He came up through the youth ranks there, having watched them from the terraces of the Bescot and Fellows Park before that. So when Walsall came knocking for the man who’s completely transformed the fortunes of my team, I wasn’t surprised to see him leave.
Admittedly, I felt a bit hurt. The timing was terrible, with 10 games left and promotion still a viable goal come May, whilst I also felt our board had been given the finger after showing faith in Keates by offering him his first managerial role just 16 months prior.
However, in truth, I was just gutted and reactionary. In a way, I was jealous that he showed that much passion for another club.
When Keates said he wouldn’t have left Wrexham for any other team than Walsall, I believed him. I know he has a place for Wrexham in his heart now but his hometown club will always be his biggest love.
That loyalty towards Walsall is why so many of their fans have praised his appointment. Meanwhile he leaves Wrexham in a much better place and has vowed to pay his supporters’ trust fees for the rest of his life – making him an owner and fan of the club forever.
For that, Wrexham fans can’t help but wish him well. Keates was the manager that got my girlfriend into football, so he’ll always be remembered fondly by both of us. Which is the reason why Saffron and I headed to the Bescot Stadium for his first game in the dugout. We were also joined by an old friend of mine and life-long Saddlers fan, Fraser.
Better in than out
We were greeted at the Bescot by the biggest advertising board next to a motorway in Europe… apparently. It towers above the ground and that, along with the M6 itself, is part of a number of strange-looking sights outside.
We also spotted an abandoned shopping trolley and a piece of ominous graffiti bearing the phrase ‘no fun’. Luckily, it didn’t prove to be a reflection of our day as things brightened up inside the ground.
The Bescot is a decent set-up. Like the advertising board, it’s one massive stand is also visible from the M6 but the rest of the ground is relatively modern as well, with potential to expand in the future. Despite there being pillars all the way around three-quarters of the stadium, the view is fine and the closeness of both the players and managers to the fans give the club a real community feel.
Having that much access to the pitch, though, meant we were scarily close to the worst mascot I’ve ever seen. Not the official club mascot, Swifty, but the sponsorship-driven creation of a smiling red house. It watched the game from a passage way right in our eyeline and was unsettling to say the least.
However, it did provide some joy as it tried to fist bump a boy on the sidelines. The boy just stared at it, unmoved and kind of pissed off. Can’t blame him really.
I’ve managed to catch up with a lot of my friends through this blog, many of which I haven’t seen for a few years. Fraser was the latest to accompany me on my groundhopping tour and gave us a real insight into Walsall.
I remember us having a strong bond over football when we first met, as we could both relate to supporting a lower-league team. Wrexham’s demise means we haven’t played the Saddlers in many years (I don’t think we’ve played them since I’ve known Fraser and that’s going back to 2008).
To finally watch a game together, and with a strong Wrexham connection as well, felt overdue. But he’s promised to see us in the play-offs (if we get there) so watch this space!
About 30 minutes into the second half of the match, I thought another 0-0 draw was on the cards. All but one game on the blog this year has been goalless and this one looked certain to be heading that way too.
Neither team could hit the target, despite several chances being created at both ends. Portsmouth were the more guilty team, as they hit shot after shot inches wide of the goal frame. Amadou Bakayoko had the best opportunity for the home side, blasting over a fierce delivery on the edge of the six-yard box.
Walsall keeper Liam Roberts had kept his team in the game by tipping over a Brett Pitman free-kick but Pompey’s continued pressure told in the end. The Saddlers looked shaky throughout the match and a poor clearance led to Gareth Evans hitting a fine, low finish into the bottom corner to take the points.
Although it would have been nice to see Walsall grab the only goal, I was relieved to just see the net bustle on the tour again.
You can piss on hospitality
There’s a scene in the film Troll 2 that is infamous amongst my friends for being so bad it’s funny. The killer line is ‘you can’t piss on hospitality’. But that’s exactly what Saff and I did at the stadium.
Fraser goes to matches with his grandparents and they’ve all got hospitality tickets. At half-time he gave Saff and I a ticket each to use the fancy toilets in the suite rather than the public ones. I couldn’t refuse for the intrigue but Saff couldn’t refuse because she thought the female public toilets were the worst she’d used at a football venue.
The hospitality suite was huge. I was surprised at the size. The men’s room was a lot cleaner than the public ones but nothing more fancier than a Wetherspoons. Saff was more pleased with her experience, as she marvelled at the availability of soap.
Big name goal scorers don’t show up
I hadn’t done too much research into player personnel before the game but I knew Keiron Morris from his loan spell at Wrexham a while back and that Erhun Oztumer was Walsall’s main man.
Unfortunately for me and the many home supporters, I think Pompey knew this too and made sure two men were marking Oztumer at all times. You could tell he definitely had talent but he became increasing frustrated and got closed out of the game.
For Portsmouth, I knew of Pitman but it wasn’t until after the game that I realised he was the second-top goal scorer in League One (I also found out Oztumer is the fourth highest). Honestly, I wouldn’t have guessed that he was a player on 18 goals for the season. He looked decent and had chances but he wasn’t a major threat.
Looking at the man’s stats though, he’s clearly a major player at that level and I’m sure on another day he’d show exactly what he’s all about.
It really would have been great to see Walsall grab the only goal of the game, mainly for Fraser but also because it would have been so Dean Keates – finding a goal and seeing the match out with a clean sheet.
I don’t think Dean realised the task in front of him when he first signed up. I certainly didn’t. Walsall looked comfortable in mid-table and he’d only have to get a couple of wins (or a few draws) to secure their place in League One next season.
But they really looked disjointed, unorganised and low on confidence. His defenders in particular. Many of their headers and clearances were aimless and just resulted in a Portsmouth player regaining possession in the final third – a pattern that resulted in the only goal of the game.
Dean won’t be overawed though. He will know his team a lot better having been on the touchline and in the dressing room for the first time as boss. Walsall still have to play the teams around them at the bottom and they will be more important games to win than this one. However, the pressure to win them is getting more intense every week.
Seeing Dean Keates in a black Walsall coat felt very surreal. Saff and I were so used to seeing him in his blue Vanarama jacket.
There was a moment when he came over to sign some merchandise for the Walsall fans and he looked me straight in the eye. I wanted to go over and shake his hand. Tell him thanks for turning my club around and giving us a great chance of finally being promoted back into the Football League, whilst wishing him every success at turning his own team around.
But in that moment when he stared me down, I felt he recognised me as a Wrexham fan. I’m sure he actually didn’t but it felt like a changing of the guard. A nod to the past. Closure.
I’m sure he’ll be repeating what he said when he first took over at Wrexham. He can’t guarantee success but he’ll work hard to instill passion, desire, workrate and pride within his team, club and town of Walsall.
For that reason, it’s hard to turn on the man. He will want to make Fraser and all the other Saddlers fans as happy as they made us at Wrexham. I hope he does and so will the several thousand fans who sang ‘Dean Keates’ barmy army’, both past and present.