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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 29/12/01
By Ian Grant

"Rabbit's clever," said Pooh thoughtfully.

"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit's clever."

"And he has Brain."

"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit has Brain."

There was a long silence.

"I suppose," said Pooh, "that that's why he never understands anything."

As ever, Pooh and Piglet, those inseparable chums, have wisdom that far exceeds their limited brainpower. Looking at modern football, you rather wish that it had more Poohs and Piglets and many, many fewer Rabbits and Owls.

Currently, Walsall are perched just above the First Division relegation zone, making a reasonable job of their second attempt at staying up. Taking a wander through profiles of their squad, the financial divide that is emerging within the Nationwide is immediately striking - the £150,000 fee paid to bring striker Jorge Leitao to the Bescot is exceptional, a moment of real daring from a club that relies almost entirely on youth team products and free transfers.

The Saddlers have been rewarded for keeping faith in "Sir" Ray Graydon, a manager of enormous credibility, after they dropped back down to the Second Division, and could generally be considered to be a model of excellence on a small scale. Their playoff triumph over big-spending, new-fangled Reading ought to have prompted a few day-dreams among Watford fans, certainly.

At the same time, however, chief executive Roy Whalley has strongly hinted that Walsall are likely to hand in their provisional resignation to the Football League today (21st December), to be confirmed before the end of the season. A quick read of Whalley's bleakly-worded statement gives great insight, for Walsall are likely to be one of the clubs left out of any exclusive breakaway. They sound isolated from the discussions...according to Whalley, "a lot of questions remain to be answered and it is difficult to see how such a League can be organised in three months, but they [the six breakaway clubs, with the support of the majority of the rest of Division One] seem hellbent on trying to do so."

If they were to avoid relegation, their resignation would make them available to compete in a new league...but it seems unlikely that they'd be invited. After all, if it turned out that Sheffield Wednesday went down instead, would one of the six clubs behind the original "Albatross League" proposal seriously be allowed to rot in the Football League graveyard? What would be the point?

If you'll pardon my language, the whole thing f***ing stinks...and, frankly, there is no need to apologise for the repetition of the theme on BSaD. This is a disgusting, sickening way for football clubs to conduct themselves. Throughout, the assumption has been that negotiations on the future of the game should be hidden from those that are most affected, the supporters.

That Whalley has broken the deafening silence will presumably not win him many friends, but his honesty is nonetheless laudable. We have the right to demand similar from Watford, yet little hope of that demand being fulfilled. Like Rabbit, these people have Brain...and they understand nothing, least of all where their loyalty should lie.

Naturally, this on-going saga will make little difference to the top half of the First Division, apart from the fact that there's probably never been a better time to get the hell out of the Football League. But it is difficult to see how the relegation battle will be anything but academic when April arrives, just as it is impossible to predict a happy outcome for the likes of Walsall. Which is thoroughly depressing. Granted, there would be few who'd notice if the Saddlers did slip back into Division Two...but the possibility that they, and Grimsby and Crewe and Stockport and anyone else with nothing tangible to offer the new league, might be gone forever is an appalling one. It is even more appalling that Watford will be partly responsible. We hated the Premiership, remember?

Oh. Yeah. Football. Right, yes.

In goal, Jimmy Walker has been pretty much ever-present since arriving at the club in the mid-nineties. His deputy, Lee Harper, signed from QPR during the summer and has made only five starts so far. Having been at Arsenal in his formative years, he should be well used to sitting around while someone else stands between the sticks.

With players coming back from injury, Ray Graydon will be looking to build upon the 4-0 stuffing of Grimsby, which ended a winless run of five games, especially as December sees Walsall face a number of sides from the bottom half. Former Manchester City right back Ian Brightwell is one of those to return to fitness, along with veteran central defender Andy Tillson. Matt Gadsby, another from the youth set-up, was under-used until this season but has been deputising for Brightwell. In Tillson's absence, the defence has included the much-travelled Tony Barras - that he's currently joint top scorer with four league goals tends to point to where Walsall's problems might lie - and Ian Roper, a product of the youth-team who was transfer-listed during the summer. Matt Carbon, signed from West Brom in the summer, is also in contention.

So far, so normal. But hang onto your hats - from now until Brett Angell, Walsall are about to get all exotic on us. With Spanish left back Zigor Aranelde, who missed just one game in the Saddlers' promotion season, available again, there's a suggestion that former Nancy captain Frederic Biancalani might move into midfield. If he does, he'll sit alongside cult figure and captain Tom Bennett. Fitzroy Simpson, whose career has seen him wear the colours of Portmouth, Hearts and Jamaica, has fallen out of favour recently, while converted full back Dean Keates could also be used.

On the right, Brazilian winger Herivelto da Silva Moreira - who, thankfully for chant writers, is known as plain old Herivelto - has been kept on the bench by Darren Wrack, who was put up for sale in the summer but has since been rewarded for his performances with removal from the transfer list. On the other side, another Spaniard, Pedro Matias, clearly has a taste for the glamourous life, having arrived at Walsall via Macclesfield and Tranmere.

Up front, Jorge Leitao, voted "Player of the Season" last time around, has been dropped by Graydon and that appears to have perked him up a bit. Darren Byfield, scorer of the decisive goal at Cardiff, is fast and powerful. Only one of those adjectives applies to Brett Angell...but, sarcasm aside, he remains an effective forward at this level, even if his less-than-impressive spell at Everton clearly exposed his limitations. Don Goodman, owner of the best hair in the division, is expected to return from injury around the Christmas period.

Looking at their squad, it's fairly obvious that Walsall are going to struggle. Nevertheless, a bit of togetherness and full commitment go a bloody long way in Division One. Apart from Stockport, you wouldn't really want to put your house on choosing the relegated teams in April.

The Saddlers have earnt the right to be here, twice. Whether they stay or go, you hope - slightly forlornly - that it'll be decided on the pitch rather than behind closed doors.

It's Christmas, a time for goodwill. Good luck, Walsall.