It doesn’t seem that long ago that Walsall’s name was being mentioned amongst the teams trying to break into the League One play-offs but, as the saying goes, a week is a long time in football and 52 of them feel like a century.
When the Saddlers, a third-tier mainstay, found themselves starting this campaign in the fourth division, it must have felt similar to how many do when they finally get rid of those slippers that have be worn to tatters and you’re forced to invest in a new pair, unfamiliar and not so comfy.
Darrell Clarke set about transforming the team and, after a difficult start, has begun to get results.
Here are four reasons behind the Saddlers improving form under the former Bristol Rovers boss...
In order to be successful in any division, you need to have a defence that can be relied upon and, on the whole, Walsall have that. They may not be replete with the marauding full-backs required to play like Plymouth but what they have is solid enough.
The central partnership of Mat Sadler and Dan Scarr, in particular, has grown in importance in the last few months and this has given them a platform from which to build.
Trust in youth
Clarke has put faith in youth in recent weeks with players like Cameron Cockerill-Mollett and Alfie Bates being given their opportunity to shine. Bates has looked especially dynamic and plays with energy on the front foot.
This has helped the Saddlers who looked fairly cumbersome at the start of the campaign with a number of ageing pros not pulling up any trees. The more youthful midfield has helped the team play with a higher tempo and the versatile Liam Kinsella has filled in well across a number of positions.
Wes McDonald has been of increasing importance with Clarke getting the best out of the winger, who recently signed a new 18-month contract extension, and if a right-winger is added on the opposite flank.
Darrell Clark's Walsall are making a push for the play-offs
Settled strike force
Walsall’s strikers were woeful at the start of the season but finally they appear to be producing the goods. Since mid-November the Saddlers have been on a run of just two defeats in 11 games, winning four of the last six.
This is, in part, down to their strikers finding the net with Josh Gordon looking increasingly confident. He has been paired with Caolan Lavery more frequently and the two of them have formed a decent partnership with Elijah Adebayo an impact option from the bench.
If Clarke can keep this settled frontline, then the improvements are likely to continue and Walsall’s form might just be enough to see them push into top-seven contention.
The Saddlers have been excellent on the road this season, picking up 20 points from their 14 games away from the Bescot. That is important because at home Walsall have been about as inspiring as a beige rainbow.
Clarke’s side are set up well to absorb pressure and then, with the likes of Josh Gordon and Wes McDonald, break forward and cause sides problems on the counter. This has seen them pick up six wins on their travels including at Port Vale, Salford and Northampton.
If the home form picks up, then the Saddlers might be able to trouble those in the play-off positions but results against the top sides need to improve.