Walsall 2019-20 Season Review with Rob Harvey and Robert Dearn

Gabriel Sutton spoke to Rob Harvey (@TheRobHarvey_) and Robert Dearn from the excellent Vital Walsall (@VitalWalsall) about the Saddlers’ 2019-20 campaign, and their prospects for when football returns.

Gab: It’s been pretty much a catalogue of errors at Walsall since Dean Smith left, needless to say that Darrell Clarke inherited a substantial re-building job. After a tough first few months, do you feel he’s starting to get to grips with it?

RH: I think Darrell Clarke has (or should that be had now?) found his strongest XI finally.  It’s taken him a while to keep to a mostly-settled starting XI but in the last few games we played it seemed like we had a formation and a way of playing that suited the players we have.  Given the rebuild that occurred in the summer I’m not overly surprised at where we find ourselves in the table but do hope that next season we will be able to push on.

RD: Where to start with this. There have been some really key decisions that the previous owner, in my view, got wrong since Dean Smith left. The appointment of Darrell was made by new owner Leigh Pomlett, and I was, and still am, delighted with the appointment. It is well known that he had the biggest turnover of both playing staff, and coaching too. The first half of the season (so far) was very much a trial and error. Looking back now, he was trying to find formulas, partnerships, and styles that worked against different teams. It wasn’t pleasant, we were near the relegation zone and as fans we were panicking. But then it started to click. The second half of the season has been brilliant, yes there has been some frustrating results, but Clarke has found a more settled team, settled style, and as he said, he has partnerships developing all over the pitch. It is the first time in a few years that we have a real reason to feel optimistic. Clarke himself will admit there is still a lot to do. But he has turned the team from one low on confidence, and going nowhere but down, to a positive environment where players are happy to be, and growing there too.

One of the key things about Clarke as a manager, which we saw at Bristol Rovers, is that he needs a core of players who share his driven mentality, who can lead the team and whom he knows he can trust. In Liam Roberts, Dan Scarr, James Clarke and Liam Kinsella, does he have that core in place?

RH: I’d say so yes. In terms of mentality the players you’ve listed definitely mirror Darrell Clarke as far as I can tell, and Clarke and Scarr definitely seem like the kind of people who could take charge of things.  Clarke is the captain so that speaks for itself in terms of him being someone who has 100% bought into Clarke’s philosophy and can be trusted to do what he’s asked by the manager.

RD: As I said before, the team was settling to begin with. I feel now that there is a definite core to the team that he has in place. In defence, Scarr, Sadler and Clarke are the 3 that he chooses between, and all I feel are leaders and vocal players in the team when they play. There was a one game (I cannot remember who we played) where Sadler and Clarke were injured or suspended, and you really saw Scarr grow as a leader in that defence.

In the middle of the park it is difficult to say who is classed as a core player. Kinsella is definitely there, and has played in pretty much every position in that midfield, which shows how Clarke values his influence on the pitch. Sinclair has been in and out of the team with an injury, and Guthrie’s fitness is questionable. However both are leaders when they are on. Up top, Gordon leads with his work-rate and running. He does not give up, and you need a striker that won’t give up to lift a team at times. I really like Roberts in goal, however I don’t see him as a leader yet. His form has gotten back on track the second half of the season, after a major dip in confidence from the last couple of tough years. So I feel that despite him being a regular feature and core player, he may not be seen by Darrell as a ‘leader’ as such.

On top of the leaders, you also need a sprinkling of quality and Wes McDonald seems to have really delivered in that regard since November. Do you think the nearing end of his initial short-term contract, which was subsequently extended to 2021, motivated him to up his game?

RH: I don’t think that the contract issue was necessarily a reason for his improved performances because that would have been something on his mind from the very start of the season.  I suspect the reason for his more consistent run of form is down to a few things clicking such as understanding how his teammates operate after spending time with them, understanding what Darrell Clarke is asking him to do specifically, and having a good run of fitness (he’s suffered with injury in the past, hence the short term contract he was given) meaning he’s been able to be confident in his own body to do what he’s been doing.

RD: Yes and no. I think that any player who wants a contract extension will try and prove their worth. But I think the main reason his form improved was a lot to do with game time. It is easy to forget how little match experience Wes has had before this season. He has racked up nearly 30 league games this season. Before that, he had 9 non-league appearances, and 9 League 2 appearances, that is all. I think with Wes, he has always had the talent there, but finally having a run of league games has seen him grow. The short-term contract was initially because of Wes’ fitness concerns. He started at the club with an injury, and I believe Darrell wanted to see how he developed, especially with such little match experience. He hit form at a very good time with the contract coming towards an end. However signs were there that both parties wanted him to stay even before his blistering run of form. Overall I think his form was due to an extended run in the team. I also think it helped that the team had started to really play well together, any tricky winger will play better when his full back is solid, and the strikers are in the right places.

Cameron Norman is contracted up to 2021 whereas Shay Facey’s deal runs out this summer… if Clarke goes with wing-backs next season, do you expect Norman to be first choice on the right?

RH: Personally I believe that Clarke prefers Shay Facey over Cameron Norman.  Either way though both players you mention can play as wing backs and I’d be happy to see them both at the club next season.  Both of them have had injuries at some point this season so it will be interesting to see what DC does in the summer regarding one or both of them.

RD: That is a very tough question. I like both of them, and I feel that both players have different qualities. Norman is an interesting one. He has very little league experience, and like with Wes, I think we all forget it quite often. He had played just shy of 100 games in non-league before he moved to Oxford, and then only played12 times in all comps after the switch. Since coming to us he has found a solid run in the team hard to come by. However since the new year he has looked a much improved player. He has looked much better defensively, although positionally sometimes he can go astray, but going forward he has offered much more. One game that stood out was Salford away. He moved over to play at left-back as Callum Cockerill-Mollett had to go off injured, and Norman excelled. I really hope to see him as the first choice Right-Back, because I really like him.

Now onto Facey. First up, I really hope Shay stays. I think he is a very good attacking full back who links well with the players in-front of him. Defensively he has good and bad days, but if he was consistent at the back too then he would be playing higher up the leagues, so really it is to be expected. However, he is a very injury prone player, and has spent a lot of time out with knocks this season, and I could see that being a problem going forward. The club want a promotion push next season, and they will need a team that gives Clarke a selection headache because they are fit, rather than because he has a threadbare squad to choose from. Overall, it is a position where I think we are settled with the two players we have, and it would be nice to keep a real core of a team where we can.

Cameron Pring returns to parent club Bristol City this summer. Zak Jules and Callum Cockerill-Mollett might be able to put in shifts as left-backs or left-sided centre-backs in a back-three, but should the club look for another left-sided player who can operate further up?

RH: Bristol City rate Pring highly so I don’t think there is any chance we will get him back next season, so in answer to your question, yes. Jules and Cockerill-Mollett are OK as full backs or centre backs, but if Clarke decides to operate with wing backs then he might well need to find a specialist wing back to fit in. As for further up, our out and out wingers at the minute are Wes McDonald and Jack Nolan, who we signed from Reading in January, so perhaps another one up there might be an option.

RD: Yes, I think we do need an out and out left-Back. Callum Cockerill-Mollett has shown real promise this season, but he has been very injury prone for us. He will need someone else to compete with him, as he is not ready to be our first choice left back.

Zak Jules is a bit of an unknown. He had a few good games out on the left. But he has not really featured much in the second half of the season. He has featured mainly when others are injured. It has been a season of real ups and downs for Jules. He had some very solid games for us, then was hauled off in games against Darlington in the first half, and then he was sacrificed against Northampton when things weren’t looking good. At the fans forum, Darrell Clarke revealed he had been left out of the team because of his training stats, and the fact he was constantly at the bottom of them. He since has improved, and like I said, has featured when filling in. I am unsure whether he will be with us longer, or whether he will move on. But even if he stays, I think we need a good, solid, left sided defender.

Rory Holden will also return to City… will you look for a right winger with similar qualities?

RH: Interestingly, Holden has been at his best playing in a kind of number 10 role, rather than on the wing.  I don’t think he will be a winger either.  When playing on the wing in the early part of the season he came in for some stick from our fans because he looked lightweight and wasn’t really having much of an impact, but since moving into the centre he’s been a revelation.  My hope is that we don’t need to replace him as Bristol City allow him to stay with us for at least another 6 months.

RD: If there has ever been the story of a player who has had a season of two halves it is Rory Holden. He started out really looking out of his depth, he missed a couple of golden chances at key times for us, and was a real weak link. The fans started getting on his back and it was a shame for him. He was also being played out of position which didn’t help. However, more recently he has been played in his more natural central role, and has looked a new player. He has looked good on the ball, can pick out a pass, and has finally found the scoresheet. He also has turned around the fans opinion. At the fans forum, Clarke suggested he could be interested in seeing whether Holden could be signed permanently. Many fans would like to see him signed, as he has shown his true potential when played in his natural role. We signed young Jack Nolan in January who is a right winger. He made a few sub appearances and has shown he has promise. I think he would have featured more if the season were to have been played normally. But we need a proper right-winger to play ahead of Nolan. More with Wes McDonalds qualities, rather than Holden.

Danny Guthrie looks your most cultured midfielder – and you’ve taken 26 points from the 17 league games he has started, form which would put you ninth if extended over a whole season. Are you overreliant on a 33-year-old for creativity in that area?

RH: I suppose you could look at it that way, yes. That said, with the emergence of Alfie Bates this season the load won’t fall just down to Guthrie moving forward. The thing with Guthrie is he’s suffered from injuries (like he has for most of his career), but you cannot deny his quality.

I would go as far as to say he is the best centre midfielder in League Two when he is fit, easily. When he’s at his best nobody comes close to him in terms of creativity, ball delivery and vision, it’s like he’s one step ahead at times.  I’m hoping we do keep him next season and give Alfie Bates more game time too.

RD: Now there is a difficult question to answer. That stat certainly seems to show that we are over-reliant on him. However, as a whole team, the second half of the season we improved massively. But also in the second half of the season Guthrie has had fewer injuries as well, and subsequently has started more games. So it is whether Guthrie is the reason the team has played better, or not?

What I can say is that he is a class above on the ball. His calmness, vision and ability to pass the ball is second to none, and he may be one of the most experienced players in the league with the amount of games played, and the level too. I think he is a top quality player, and a really good creative player. However, looking at the matches we have played with him starting, I don’t feel he is the reason we have played better. Yes, he is a contributing factor, however I think there are many other reasons. For example, Port Vale away, we defended so well, and limited their strike force to little to nothing.

Alfie Bates didn’t get much of a look-in under Dean Keates, but he managed nine starts last season in League Two – excited by his potential?

RH: Alfie Bates is going to be a great player. He didn’t get much of a look in with Dean Keates purely because of his age and I doubt he was ready for a League One relegation battle at the age of 17 (I think he would have been).  As for potential, he could be one of the best players to come through our academy for a while.

Understandably he’s had a couple of performances that were a bit so-so after playing more often than anybody probably expected, but he’s never really looked out of place.

RD: Alfie Bates is the player that I am most excited about seeing develop. He is a really talented young lad, and with Danny Guthrie there to mentor and guide him, and to pass on his experience, I really can see a bright future for him. I think in the Keates days, it wasn’t right to do so. Giving him action last season with the way we were playing would have been unfair on a 17 year old (which is how old he was then). I also think it would have been too soon for him last season. He has shown a lot of promise this season, he is technically very gifted, and gets stuck in too. I am looking forward to seeing him next season, and I feel he will be featuring more.

35-year-old Mat Sadler and 32-year-old Stuart Sinclair see their existing deals run out this summer. Do you think the club will be content to let them go in favour of younger alternatives?

RH: This question has stumped me to be honest because I don’t know. Personally I would keep them both. Sadler has been pretty good most of the time, and Sinclair could be a decent player to back up and rotate between the midfielders we currently have in that position (Guthrie, Kinsella, Bates, and Sinclair himself).

RD: I am not sure about this at all. Clarke likes to have a balance in his squad, he has said all along that he likes to have some leaders in the team, and by that I assume he means older players who are more experienced. Mat Sadler has not looked like a 35-year old. He has moved to play centrally since he was here last, and he has looked a solid player for us. He has featured out as a left-back, and held his own well, which is a promising sign. I think he has one more season in him, especially because of the way he has been used. He has been rested in all of the Leasing.com matches, which is wise. He did play all over the festive period, which is the busiest time of the year, so it shows he can play regularly still. He was intended to have been rested, but had to come on against Salford due to Cockerill-Molletts injury, and came on as a half-time sub when trying to stop an Exeter comeback in December too. He has proved his fitness and I think he deserves another season. All that being said, Sadler may decide to call it a day, especially if football resuming is pushed back by a lot.

Stuart Sinclair will stay, without a doubt, and if he doesn’t then I will be really annoyed.. Watching him play, you forget he is 32. He reminds me of Adam Chambers, he covers a lot of ground, and really gets stuck in. He has been a driving force at times, and a midfield three with Kinsella and Guthrie is something to get excited about. He has also scored a couple of goals for us, and his work-rate doesn’t go unnoticed by fans. So I don’t see him leaving.

Elijah Adebayo has scored eight league goals this season, which is twice as many as Caolan Lavery – and yet, one might argue that it is the latter who has formed the more efficient strike-pairing with nine-goal top scorer Josh Gordon. Why do you think that is?

RH: I didn’t actually realise that fact until you’ve told me. That’s mad to think. The last 2 or 3 weeks of the season that were played, Adebayo started playing like a footballer who knew what he was doing and seemed to have a pretty good relationship with Josh Gordon. I think as Lavery could be classed as the more established pro he would have known how to play with different players whereas Adebayo is quite fresh.  Between the three of them though we have a pretty decent strike-force going into next season if we keep them all.

RD: I did an article before football had ended about goals scored, and I couldn’t believe how few Lavery had scored in the league. Adebayo has only really looked like a quality striker in the last couple of months. It has taken him a while to settle, and really be effective, but recently he has started to look like the complete package. I think the Lavery/Gordon partnership has been the best, proven partnership so far this season. However after a few more games playing the way he has, Adebayo will break into that.

Josh Gordon gave an interview a while back where he said that his game is similar to Lavery’s, and they both knew where each other would be, or know what they were going to do. Watching them play, they are both quick players, who will defend from the front. They both score a lot of poachers goals too, and they have similar movement.

So I think the reason their partnership is so effective, is because they think the same. Lavery has 4 assists as well as goals in the league, but across all competitions he is on 10 goals and 7 assists. I am not sure why his goals tally is so low in the league, but I certainly see him as a key player going forward.

Walsall’s academy produced a lot of talent under Smith. Is it important that the club gets back to positive youth development? Any kids you are particularly excited about?

RH: This is probably an area I fall down on as I don’t see much of the youth team.  That said, the two most exciting prospects we have at the moment appear to be Joe Willis and Sam Perry who have both played for the first team on occasion this season.

RD: We have a good few players that Saddlers fans are looking forward to seeing in the future. Firstly, the academy seems to be back on its feet. Miguel Llera has been the academy manager since last summer, and the team have been playing well in the matches they have. It has been nice to get back to being a club that produces its own players, as we really have had a gap where the youth products over the last 2-3 years have not been good enough to play. There are a few prospects that we are excited about. Obviously Alfie Bates is one we have all seen this season, he is really a player that I think will go on to play at a much higher level.

There are a few youngsters too who will be breaking in sooner rather than later. Sam Perry played his debut against Portsmouth in the Leasing.com Trophy and had a blinding game. So he is one we are wanting to see more of. However he suffered a knock which meant he hasn’t featured again, however he is thought very highly of.

There is also Joe Willis, who has been on the bench a couple of times. Willis is a midfielder too, but has only made one substitute appearance. Finally there is Luke Pearce.

Luke is a 15 year-old Striker who has been training with the first team. He is very highly thought of at the club, and Darrell actually told us that he would be in the matchday squad against Stevenage. But the game was called off with a waterlogged pitch. He may not feature much due to his age, but Clarke isn’t the type of manager to include a player just for some experience. He clearly has seen something that he thinks Pearce can offer to the team. Clarke has said that he has played well in the reserves, and is a natural finisher who absorbs information well. So he is one I hope to see having a big future.

How do you reflect on 2019-20 for Walsall overall? Technically it’s your lowest finish this millennium but I imagine it feels like there’s some signs of progress…

RH: Definitely. It’s a bit rubbish that it’s our lowest finish of the millennium, but sometimes you have to hit the low point to start going back up and I think that finally this season we have put the last few seasons to bed and seem to be able to start looking cautiously upwards. It literally has been a season of two halves for us, the 2019 part was horrendous and even had us worrying of another relegation at points, but the 2020 part up to now has given us some sort of optimism and hope for the future.

RD: Yes thanks for this stat, it really cheered me up. It doesn’t really feel as though it’s our lowest finish. It doesn’t feel anywhere near as bad as last season, where the club as a whole were on a downhill slope. We have a fantastic chairman in Leigh Pomlett, he is the perfect mixture of fan and businessman, which is perfect for what we need.

We also have a proven manager in Darrell Clarke. The playing side of things was very shaky to begin with, but our recent form has shown we are on the way up, and it gives hope for the future. Off the field, we have a lot of stadium improvements lined up, and the board is also trying to slowly roll out ideas to improve matchdays. So it feels like a minor rebirth.

The Bonser days are well and truly over, and the Pomlett era is here!