4 reasons why Walsall should go all out for Keith Hill

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 07 May 2019, 09:17

Walsall’s 0-0 draw at Shrewsbury on Saturday, combined with victories elsewhere for Plymouth and Southend, confirmed the club’s relegation.

It should not be completely ignored that the current board have delivered 12-years of third-tier football entwined with sustainability – not too many similarly-sized clubs have been able do that without major external investment.

Notts County, Port Vale, Wrexham, Chesterfield, Hartlepool and Stockport would all swap places with Walsall right now.

There’s other clubs - Macclesfield, Morecambe, Gateshead and Southend - who have failed to pay player wages in full on time this season.

Blackpool have suffered years of the Oyston regime, Oxford do not own their stadium, Coventry do not know if they will be playing in Coventry next year while Bury and Bolton do not know if they will exist at all.

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There is an increasingly huge disparity between Championship income and the income League One and Two clubs receive, so for a club that has not tasted second-tier revenue for 15 years with no wealthy benefactor to remain financially stable is unglamorously respectable in the current EFL climate.

Equally, it cannot be denied that mistakes have been made since Dean Smith left in 2015: the board have been slow to recruit, passive at times in their planning and have been perceived to make decisions based on loyalty rather than judgement, all contributing to a decline that has contributed in relegation.

The next step will be to retain the sense of financial stability whilst simultaneously sharpening up their act to devise a long-term plan to regain their status as a steady League One club – we reckon Keith Hill could be the man to initiate the re-building process.

Here’s why.

 

He develops youth

When Walsall have been at their best this decade, they have had the capacity to promote from the youth academy and develop players.

Dean Smith fostered a clear playing identity: they shifted the ball swiftly and smoothly, but within a structured framework that enabled them to maintain a strong defensive record – from there, we saw young players such as Rico Henry develop.

In this case, Walsall did not accumulate the fees they could have done because Smith left at a critical time in terms of contract negotiations – talks subsequently stalled with a lot of their best players and the summer after he left, most rejected offers in favour of moves elsewhere.

If Walsall can gain a stronger grip of contract negotiations, they should avoid a similar scenario under Hill, who is perhaps less likely to appeal to Championship clubs in quite the same way Smith did.

The Mancunian’s management has worked wonders for the likes of Matty Lund and Callum Camps – in the main, at least - and there is no reason why he could not have a similar effect on technical talent Liam Kinsella and possibly youngster Alfie Bates.

He develops rough diamonds

Even in a lower division, Walsall will not be able to afford the cream of the crop.

One imagines they will be behind Plymouth, Scunthorpe and Bradford in the pecking order, plus at least one of Forest Green and Mansfield, Oldham or Northampton if either splurge and Salford should the National League Play-Off Final go that way.

Plus, Walsall currently have just seven senior players contracted to the club for next season – Liam Roberts, Cameron Norman, Korey Roberts, Dan Scarr, Andy Cook, Morgan Ferrier and Josh Gordon.

Korey Roberts is generously counted in the senior category having featured for the club in 2017 but has had appearances limited by injury – and the latter three listed are all forwards.

It is tempting to presume that Jon Guthrie, Luke Leahy, Liam Kinsella, Omar Mussa and Zeli Ismail might receive and accept new deals from those out of contract, plus maybe Scott Laird’s loan deal could be made permanent, seeing as his Forest Green deal expires in the summer.

The above scenario would leave Walsall needing to replace 13 of the 19 out-of-contract players to have the same-sized squad as they currently do – although maybe new 10 additions is more likely if the club is content to have a smaller squad.

 

It is unrealistic for Walsall to expect to get the best possible players available for every position that needs addressing, so they need somebody who can polish hidden gems.

Hill has a track record of doing that.

He’d promote attractive football

Since Smith left, Walsall have not been able to hold onto their principles of playing good football.

Under Jon Whitney, the style of play often comprised of hopeful punts down the channels: it was often a case of heroic goalkeeping from Neil Etheridge and skilful individualism from Erhun Oztumer keeping them in a respectable position and a lot of fans saw through the unsustainability of that.

Under Keates, meanwhile, between November and February, Walsall went long to Cook with a large proportion of their passes, in a way that some might feel overburdened the target man and perhaps restricted others in the squad.

There were some decent counter-attacking performances under Keates, but not enough so the club needs to find a new playing identity – as we saw in the 3-0 win over Peterborough under O’Connor, Cook may benefit from not being the man around whom every piece of build-up play revolves.

Dan Scarr, contracted for another two years, has both aerial strength and ball-playing qualities, so the former Stourbridge man could be somebody to build a fresh team around if a more progressive style is sought.

He’s not a Walsall legend

Dean Smith, Jon Whitney and Dean Keates all got their jobs partly due to a long-term association with Walsall (although Keates had a very good record at Wrexham) – O’Driscoll was in Jeff Bonser’s contacts book and even interim boss O’Connor was locally born.

 

Based on that, natives are sceptical that the club might not be appointing managers based on an extensive search, but rather looking at who they can contact easily and who has an affinity with supporters.

What we have seen recently though is that fans do not want the club to appoint a manager for sentimental reasons – they want them to appoint the best manager available.

If Walsall were to invest big in the right manager with a proven record of developing players, they will save money in the long-run because they will develop saleable assets as a result of having the right coaching structure.

Hill is the perfect man for the job.

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