On Saturday afternoon, the Villans will take on local rivals the Saddlers at the Bescot Stadium in a game that has become almost as regular as Villa v Everton in the fixture list.
When the Villans visited last summer, Paul Lambert’s side won 1-0, thanks to Alan Hutton.
The Saddlers are known for an attractive style of play and reached the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy last season, only to lose to Bristol City at Wembley.
I spoke to Michael Beardmore, the sports editor for the ‘Walsall Advertiser’ and ‘Lichfield Mercury’, ahead of the clash.
1) Walsall seem to have a considerable turnaround yearly. Is this an issue in a promotion push?
It probably has been in the past but manager Dean Smith deserves credit here as it’s nowhere near as bad as it was before he took over. Smith has, where possible and where merited, handed out two-year, even three-year, deals to some players.
He publicly stated after his first few months in charge that he wanted to give the club more stability and continuity by offering longer deals. There are still several on one-year deals but Smith has done his best to tie his top players down. It doesn’t always work due to player power but it’s definitely better now than five years ago.
This summer is a case in point. Smith has only made three signings so far: with the majority of last season’s squad still under contract, Smith is only looking to fine-tune here and there. Hopefully, the continuity will lead to an improvement on last season’s fourteenth place finish in League One.
2) Dean Smith has created a reputation for himself due to his style of play. Is it a matter of time before another club asks for his services?
I think if it was going to happen, it would have happened by now. Smith has done a fine job at Walsall on limited resources but he has had some poor spells too and has been shown a great deal of patience by the board when many other clubs would have pushed the panic button. He has been allowed time to build at Walsall and establish his own philosophy on how the team should play. He wouldn’t get that at most other clubs. When clubs sack a manager they are generally looking for a quick fix – that’s the nature of modern football. Smith is not necessarily the first man you would suggest in that situation – he’s more a man for the long-term. While many chairmen would admire the job he’s done, are they willing to give him three or four years to do the same at their clubs? The answer at the vast majority of clubs – whose chairmen want success now, not tomorrow – is ‘no’.
3) What are your thoughts on Tim Sherwood?
As a football fan, I’m not shy to say it – I absolutely love the guy. When he first took over at Tottenham I thought he was a breath of fresh air. I suspect his approach makes him a Marmite manager to most football fans – you either love him or hate him. I just think his passion shines through and he’s not afraid to say what he feels plus he has a sense of humour. When you sit through so many boring, uniform interviews and press conferences to have a change like that is refreshing. I’ve no attachment to or resentment towards Villa personally. I’ve always wished them well enough without really being too bothered with how they do but when Sherwood took over I found myself rooting for them to stay up and reach the cup final last season. He’s that sort of personality.
4) Who is the man Villa fans should watch out for on Saturday?
Tom Bradshaw – the man who scored twenty goals for Walsall last season despite missing a huge chunk of the campaign (almost half of it, I’d wager) with hamstring problems. He just has that goal-scoring knack you just can’t teach. When he was out injured, Walsall missed him so badly it was untrue. Had he been fit all last season, they’d have made the play-offs, in my view. His ratio was better than a goal every two games and he must have taken a high proportion of his chances too – a handful of misses stick in the mind and that’s probably because you were surprised when he failed to score.
He’s easily in the top five strikers in the division. If he can avoid further injuries, Villa could do worse than shell out 1/33rd of the Benteke money on a little gamble on him!
5) Which former or current Aston Villa player would you most like in your team? Why?
Tough one, this. There’s no-one in the current squad who sets the world on fire so I’ll have to go back in time, I guess. I know he was only with Villa for a season or so but I’ll have to say Peter Schmeichel, who is, in my eyes, the greatest goalkeeper the game has ever known.
Paul McGrath would be up there too and James Milner – a hugely under-rated and harshly-criticised player.
6) What are your thoughts on the prices of tickets in the Premier League?
It’s just horrendous really. When you see the comparative prices in the Bundesliga (where you can watch most if not all clubs cheaper than you can watch Walsall) it just beggars belief. With the huge sponsorship deals nowadays that earn clubs so much money, you would think they could just give the fans a break and drop prices. Initiatives like the one Swansea are doing this season, subsidising away games for supporters, are laudable, but more clubs should be doing things like that. I suppose while people continue to pay the prices, though, clubs will milk it.
7) How can you see your season panning out?
I can’t see anything other than mid-table again, to be honest, unless someone comes in with a bid for Bradshaw before this transfer window closes or in January. If that happens, I’d be worried about relegation. As it is, Walsall probably have too much quality to get into trouble but not enough to challenge for promotion. They might flirt with the top six or bottom four at some point depending on if they over- or underachieve but if I was putting my mortgage on a region where they’ll finish it would be thirteenth to sixteenth.
8) What is your match prediction?
With Benteke and Delph, I’d have fancied Villa to run out easy 3-0 winners. Now, I’m not so sure. Villa will still probably win but I’ll plump for 1-0 or 1-1 if they give Bradshaw a sniff of goal.
9) Football Manager or Fifa?
I’m married and have a three-year-old child with another on the way so have no time for computer games but in my younger years I was a FIFA fan. I haven’t got enough patience or application for Football Manager!
10) Orange juice or apple juice?
Orange juice. Apple juice tastes rank!
Thanks to Michael Beardmore for taking part in this edition of the opposition view. You can find Michael on Twitter here.