Walsall Season Preview: Dobson’s development

With the 2018-19 League One season not far away, The Football Lab spoke to Walsall fan Pete Sadler (@Pistol_PeteS9) from Bescot Banter.

The one thing Dean Keates appears to have done since taking the manager’s job in March is unite the fanbase, even if results are yet to improve. Is he somebody supporters want to get behind?

Absolutely. Dean is a local lad who played over 200 games for the club in two spells, after making his professional debut with us. He’s a club legend and previous Player of the Season winner, so would always have plenty of credit in the bank.

After what he did with Wrexham, in guiding them well away from danger and more towards a promotion push, made it a no-brainer to return to the Bescot Stadium for a third time.

Since returning he has made the right noises to my mind; focussing on getting his own staff on board and establishing a scouting network… the latter of which has been a long time coming!

It just remains to be seen whether the board will back him with the funds to strengthen the playing squad and add the experience we so desperately lack.

Keates’ first move this summer was to bring in Andy Cook, who has just scored an impressive 50 goals in 89 appearances for Tranmere. Does the target man’s arrival suggest a direct style of play will be adopted?

Cook is a very different proposition for defenders than what we had last season; as he is an experienced player from non-league with a proven goalscoring record at that level. From what I’ve seen of him in pre-season he will definitely score goals for Walsall and hopefully help Bakayoko, and the other younger strikers, to learn the art of forward play.

I’m not sure that Cook’s arrival means a direct style as such, although it does give that option, and the other arrivals suggest more likely a change of shape and point of attack down the flanks.

Top scorer Erhun Oztumer has left for Bolton on a free and no attacking midfielder signed at the time of writing. Might Maz Kouhyar be given a chance to show what he can do, or will Amadou Bakayoko play just off Cook?

It was an obvious one that we lacked firepower last season and relied too heavily on Erhun Oztumer to create and score goals. Basically if Erhun didn’t have a good game the chances of us taking any points were slim to none towards the end of the season.

Amadou Bakayoko is quick, has good feet and works hard but he is far from clinical in front of goal and lacks the experience of how to adapt when it isn’t working. It could be a profitable partnership if Keates chooses to go with two up top.

Maz Kouhyar is in a similar boat to Ama, in that he has ability but is young and inexperienced. I’m not sure the best place and time to learn is with your back against the wall and pressure on to perform every week.

I think it’s more likely that Zeli Ismail will be the playmaker, even if from a wide position, and back him to have a great season for the Saddlers if he can stay injury free. Fingers crossed.

Your full-backs, Nicky Devlin and Luke Leahy, look very attack-minded. Will they be given the freedom they need to influence things?

I suppose that it depends on whether we utilise wingers, in Ginnelly and Ismail, as mentioned before and will again below.

Leahy’s best attribute is his crossing and he got a fair few assists last season, which bearing in mind we didn’t have a target man as such and our top scorer was 5ft nothing, is a good return.

Devlin is equally as good going forward, albeit the return on assists is less than Leahy’s, and needs to work on his positional play and awareness so as to sure up the defensive line and keep his starting XI spot.

Josh Ginnelly always looks like a handy winger and your fans have been singing for new signing Zeli Ismail, even while he was playing for Bury! Thoughts on the wide options?

I’ve not seen anything of Josh Ginnelly since he has returned to the club on a permanent deal, however he has given interviews saying that he has grown as a player and matured which should be good.

When he was with us previously on loan he was extremely pacey and tricky but not relied upon, maybe because of his age or maybe because of his inconsistency. But that was 2 years ago and he has won 2 promotions in 2 seasons since.

Zeli was a breath of fresh air when he came in on loan last season and took some of the pressure off Erhun Oztumer. It was disappointing to see him go back to Bury in the turn of the year, but fortunately with their relegation it meant he could return, moving him closer to his Wolverhampton family base too.

Holding midfielder Adam Chambers, at 37, doesn’t seem able to cover quite as much ground as he used to. Is the fact he started 43 games last season only a credit to his professionalism, or does it also suggest the club hasn’t been able to find a longer-term replacement?

Adam is a legend at the Bescot and deserves to choose when he hangs up his boots in my opinion. His engine and desire to want to keep playing is a testament to his professionalism and a great example to the (obviously) younger members of the squad.

As I have eluded to above, the current squad lacks experience so Adam’s influence around the team is essential. To lose him and replace him is unlikely to be cheap and, for a club that operates at the lower end of the budget table, that’s going to be difficult.

It has to be remembered that we lost Joe Edwards to injury mid-season last term and had he and George Dobson been both available then maybe Adam could and would have sat out a bit more. Joe’s return will be a huge boost to the team.

George Dobson appears to have that nice combination of composure with the ball and energy without it. Are you glad to have him contracted to the club permanently?

It was obvious that George has ability when he joined us on loan; when your footballing education starts with spells at Arsenal and West Ham it should set you up with a solid platform. The problem was that there were a few players ahead of him in the pecking order for positions in the centre of midfield, on top of his lack of lower league football.

After a season with us he decided to move to Sparta Rotterdam and I don’t blame him, or anyone in fact, from trying to make it abroad but as a Saddlers fan I’m glad he came back and signed a long term (for Walsall anyway) deal.

He wrote himself into Saddlers history with the late winner at home to Northampton last season to ensure our safety and effectively relegate them. It all looks good for a long and mutually beneficial future for him.

You’ve lost loanee Jack Fitzwalter from last season. Can Kory Roberts be relied upon every week, or do you need another centre-back to partner Jon Guthrie?

I was disappointed to see Jack leave, but with West Brom getting relegated from the Premier League will help his claim for a spot in their first team. He was outstanding for us and wish him all the best for the future, he has the ability for sure.

Kory Roberts again undoubtedly has potential and is performances for us last season belied his tender years. I would have backed him to step up into the starting XI or be pushing for it this season as a regular had it not been for his tragic and unfortunate injury against Stoke, which puts him out for the whole season. Of course every Saddlers fan, every football fan in fact, wishes Kory a speedy recovery.

It means that our need for defensive reinforcements to assist Jon Guthrie are paramount. A few have been trialled in pre-season games date but none have yet signed. I expect this to change very shortly.

You’ve had some good goalkeepers in recent seasons such as Richard O’Donnell and Neil Etheridge. Do you see Liam Roberts as somebody who can potentially join that list?

100%. It’s a strange one because I didn’t rate either O’Donnell or Etheridge when they joined and thought they were error prone and weak on crosses. As it turned out they both worked really hard and improved immeasurably. Of a choice between the two I always favoured O’Donnell on a professional and personal level, and I’m surprised that Cardiff have given Etheridge a new deal once they were promoted.

Liam’s time with us has been strange, with him being released at one stage a couple of seasons ago to then resign and get an opportunity with Etheridge missing games and then moving on.

I’m not sure that Mark Gillespie was ever good enough for Walsall, despite his initial impact in saving a penalty away at Bury. This gave Liam an opportunity which he grasped with both hands. Confidence breeds success and from that point onwards he never looked back.

The only concern is that all the above mentioned keepers evolved under the tutorage of Neil Cutler, who moved to West Brom during last season. It remains to be seen if Liam can kick on in his absence and/or whether we can pick up another quality addition to push him.

Saddlers aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the League One season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

I’m sure it will be no surprise to see Sunderland run away with it; they will still have Premier League parachute payments and are a huge club with finances Walsall can only dream of. Portsmouth and Peterborough should be there or there abouts also, together with Charlton and Bradford who are all doing a bit of business in the close season.

I don’t know if it counts as a dark horse but I would expect Luton to do well, given that they were so threatening offensively in League 2 last season.

At the other end of the spectrum I wouldn’t be surprised to see Shrewsbury return to the lower end of the league table, and joined by Accrington Stanley and Rochdale, who I think will all struggle.

Where will you finish?

I say it every year, but without an injection of significant investment, it will be another middling season where we may flirt with the playoffs or the relegation zone.

Of course a lot can change in terms of our prospects depending on who we manage to get signed on the dotted lines before the first kick off of the season. That and the key players staying injury and suspension free.

As for a specific place to hang my cap on… I’d plump for 14th.

Thanks to Pete for his answers. The Football Lab’s verdict on Walsall can be found on We Love Betting from 30th July.