Walsall, Cypriot Flags and Freedom of Speech
The West Midlands is experiencing something of a high in terms of football at the moment. Despite rumours of Martin O’Neill’s departure, Aston Villa have had a great season – reaching the Carling Cup final, and challenging for the fourth Champions League place. Birmingham City didn’t just stay up after last season’s promotion, but have finished in their best league position since 1959. Wolverhampton Wanderers have survived a season in the top flight for the first time in four attempts, and finished in their highest league position since 1980. In addition, West Bromwich Albion’s promotion to the Premier League means that the West Midlands will have four league teams in the top flight next season for the first time since 1986, when Coventry City, rather than Wolves completed the quartet. Historically those five clubs mentioned have been the powerhouses of Midland football, but the most populated county in the West Midlands has a sixth league side – Walsall. And while the rest of the Black Country and Birmingham get to reflect on good times, the county’s smallest professional club is going through a period of turmoil.
Walsall have always been in the shadow of their bigger neighbours, and the national media rarely ever focus on the club. Last Saturday, that changed to a small degree, when on BBC1’s Football League Show, in amongst the usual banalities read out by Lizzie Greenwood-Hughes, there were a number of texts and emails from Walsall fans complaining about their club, but afraid to leave their names for fear of reprisals. This is not paranoia on the fans part, as last month Chief Executive Roy Whalley responded to the unveiling of two flags, one against manager Chris Hutchings, and one against chairman Jeff Bonser (a Cypriot national flag – where Bonser is alleged to have a holiday home – adorned with the words “PENSION FUND FC”) by threatening to ban fans who protest against the club. So far three fans have already been banned for voicing their opinions. One of these fans is the secretary of Walsall’s Supporter’s Trust, and also has a column with in the local newspaper the Walsall Advertiser. Another of the banned fans is involved in fan website upthesaddlers.com.
On Saturday, at the Bescot Stadium, in their final league game against the Franchise, there was a small amount of crowd disturbance – however unlike the other disturbances at Hillsborough at Boreham Wood, this disturbance wasn’t antagonism towards the opposition and opposition fans, but this was a protest towards the chairman of the club, Jeff Bonser. Just after half-time, a fan unveiled a banner behind the goal, declaring “FREEDOM OF SPEECH”. According to eyewitnesses, the banner was first ripped down by stewards, and then the fan was dragged out of his seat by five stewards, suffering leg injuries in the process. Once in the concourse, the stewards and police explained that while the fan had not committed any offence, the club wanted him, and the banner removed. The fan is currently considering legal action. After the match, around 80 supporters staged a sit-in in further protests.
These are the latest protests by a new Supporter Group, named Unity, against the administration of the club by Bonser and Whalley. Unity have been highlighting their cause by asking fans to wear yellow, and display Cyprus flags. Other fans have gone even further, and suggested boycotting the club. The complaints amongst the fans are aimed at lack of investment into the club, and also at the level of rent that the club has to pay to their landlord – Jeff Bonser – which is alleged to be over £1,000 per day. Bonser on the other hand, is refusing to answer requests for interviews from the local media, be it through newspapers or local radio. However, in a summer where the club are actively looking to stop the slide in attendances, in an attempt to plug a debt that the club have claimed is over £2.5m, Bonser needs to start coming up with answers to the people that effectively pay the club’s rent to him. If he doesn’t, and tensions between the two sides increase, the 2,000 drop in crowds since Walsall’s relegation from the Championship in 2004 may well be the tip of the iceberg.
Edited – 13.00 on 14-05-10: I’ve had to close the comments on this piece, I’m afraid, although I will leave those that I believe to be by the people that they claim to be in place. To be absolutely frank, I think that to post comments up under somebody else’s name is pathetic and, furthermore, it puts this very site (which is nothing whatsoever to do with Walsall FC or even any of its supporters’ groups) at risk. So, whoever it was posting those messages up, thanks for that. Your IP address has been kept and will be checked over later.