THIS WEEK I had the pleasure of watching the best footballing team in League One in action and it’s given me an extra helping of hope for the future.
No, I’m not talking about Swindon Town – though all the signs are there that in time Mark Cooper’s team can reach such lofty status – I’m referring to Walsall.
On a tight budget, in front of a modest average crowd of around 5,000 fans, Dean Smith has assembled a squad at the Bescot Stadium which oozes quality, confidence, pace and power. It’s a formidable achievement for a relatively small club, competing in a region where Aston Villa, West Brom, Birmingham City, Wolves and Coventry (sort of) are more than noisy neighbours.
What Smith has managed to concoct at the Saddlers should give everyone associated with Swindon an exciting preview of what life could be like in the not-so-distant future at the County Ground. A squad assembled with due diligence and due process, carefully selected not necessarily for who they have been in the past but what they are likely to become over the coming seasons.
Smith was promoted to the top job at Walsall back in 2011 and steered them to safety when at one point it seemed inevitable that they would make the drop into the bottom tier. He has been given time by a patient and evidently knowledgeable board to mould a squad that plays attractive and effective football.
He’s been given the opportunity to nurture young talent – Sam Mantom, Romaine Sawyers, Malvind Bennings, supplement his side with experienced professionals – Adam and James Chambers, Craig Westcarr, and draft in the stars of tomorrow on loan – Milan Lalkovic, for example, and three years later, as a result, his winning potion is simmering away nicely.
There’s a trend in League One of patience paying off. Gary Johnson turned a £1million budget into play-off success with Yeovil last season, 18 months after returning to Huish Park, and Russell Slade has spent four years turning relegation candidates Leyton Orient into serious title contenders.
Their successes are relevant when taking into consideration the blueprint now in place at Swindon.
No longer is SN1 quick fix central. It’s not in chairman Lee Power’s mandate to recruit expensive short-term solutions for problems which, with a little extra love and attention, can be easily remedied in-house.
Paolo Di Canio spoiled Swindon Town with a rash abandon in the transfer market. Sure, in the end his spending produced some of the most exciting times we’ve had at the County Ground for many a year but there was no end game. Players were signed with minimal resale value and abandoned when most in need of a bit of TLC. It’s one way to run a football club but not ideal for a club the size of Swindon, in the division Swindon is in.
The examples provided by Walsall and Orient – the two best sides I have seen in League One this year – should encourage supporters rather than upset them. They are 36 months-plus down the same road Town have just merged onto and it’s not been a smooth ride for either club until this season.
So when the Saddlers and the O’s outplayed Town, as has been the case in each of the three matches involving those sides this term, perhaps we got an insight into how things might be a little further down the line.
“We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world,” the American political author Helen Keller once said. She’d be right at home at SN1 in 2014.