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The Shrimp ‘n’ Pork Scratching Classico!

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Brian Jeeves scribes in relation to a casual affair in the Wild West Midlands

So why on earth would a lifelong Southend United supporter have a soft spot for an equally frustrating team from 174-miles away? Well, I’ll explain.

My tale of double footballing hardship dates back almost 30-years, Friday 29th April 1983 to be exact! My beloved Shrimpers had endured a largely unspectacular season, they were languishing somewhere towards the middle of the Third Division when Walsall arrived at Roots Hall for pretty much a “dead rubber” So dead that only 1,904 hardly souls bothered to show up, the lowest post war crowd to watch a Football League match in Southend at the time!

Of the record low turnout, a small contingent had made their way down from the Black Country, as I stood at the top of the steps leading into the East Stand, several strange accents congregated around me. Being a mere youngster, I’d not had much contact with Midlander’s before. Only the sound of a poorly recorded audio of Jasper Carrott in my dad’s car in fact! They seemed friendly enough, besides, I’d never really felt threatened by Walsall, whenever I’d seen them in the past Southend has always beaten them!

I plucked up the courage to talk, football matter at first, but as confidence grew, I asked one of their number if he’d send me some Walsall programmes for my fledgling collection.

The match itself seldom had the pulse racing. Danny Greaves gave Southend the lead before Richard O’Kelly replied for the Saddlers, and for a couple of weeks, that was that. However, a parcel of programmes arrived in the post along with a pennant and a scarf and this particular Shrimper had a new “other team”.

With Southend playing many of their home matches on Friday night, I was able to start making the odd pilgrimage to Fellows Park to see my “other” charges in action. At this time, Walsall were under the guidance of Alan Buckley and played some decent stuff. Players such as Caswell, Mower and Preece became heroes as my visits became more frequent. Soon I swapped a seat in the stand for a place behind the goal. The Hillary Street End was the place to be, full of characters and brimming with humour. Standing on the old terrace soon saw my attention drifting elsewhere. I developed a crush on a girl by the name of Tina Fillery, for the first time I was going to matches for reasons other than watching the football!

In October 1985, following an instantly forgettable 1-0 defeat at Doncaster Rovers, I skipped the bus back to the railway station, choosing “shanks’s pony” so I could follow Tina and her friends back to catch the rattler, much in the hope of catching her eye. On that station platform we first spoke and became friends. We would spend the next few years meeting up all over the country to see the Saddlers in action.

However, football never stands still. Players moved on, Walsall moved grounds and life took Tina and I in different directions, much like Walsall who slipped into the Fourth Division. Visits to the Bescot Stadium became rare as paths led to pastures new. I still looked out for the Saddlers from afar, only occasionally did I find myself able to catch a game.

Nevertheless, in 2003 my life took a new path. I met Victoria (now my wife) a Black Country wench. Visits to see her family gave me the opportunity to sneak off and see a few matches at the Bescot, and with Southend and the Saddlers once again finding themselves in the same division my very own derby of sorts, “the Shrimp & Pork Scratching Classico” returned.

I’d also started scribing short football stories and memories. Victoria thought a good title for my first publication would stem from my tale about watching Walsall, thus in 2009 “Whatever happened to Tina Fillery?” was published.

Later that year via the medium of modern technology (Facebook to be precise) Tina and I found ourselves in contact again and arranged to meet up at the Bescot. In recent times, she’d not seen much of the Saddlers. For old time sake, behind the goal seemed the obvious choice of seat. Considering at that time life had bestowed worldly adventures three marriages and five children to boot, we seemed to struggle to find anything to talk about. Walsall weren’t making things any easier for us either, a rampant Rovers tearing into a five goal lead while the Saddlers failed to make any headway. As the final minutes ticked away, Walsall finally had a strike, although somewhat tame, at the visitors’ goal.  “Down stairs” in the Gilbert Alsop stand, the faithful dwellers gave an ironic cheer and started to chant “Walsall’s ‘ad a shot” – I that moment a friendship was rediscovered, Tina turned to me and said, “I’ve missed all this”

I’m pleased to say Tina and her family are good friend of ours, as are Michael “John” Eyre, Roy Randle and Don Martin who I met on the Roots Hall steps 30-years ago. Bonds forged through two of football’s unfashionable clubs who mean the world to me.

What with watching Southend United and reporting on my local non-league club Great Wakering Rovers, I don’t get to see the Saddlers as much as I would like. Nevertheless, they are still the first result I listen for when tuning in the car radio to hear James Alexander-Gordon read the classified check on BBC 5 live. A clenched fist is either raised or slammed on the steering wheel, dependant on the dulcet tone of his voice! 

Happy 125th Anniversary Walsall Football Club. I’m delighted to have shared 30-years of our lives together – Brian Jeeves (Author – Southend United supporter casually acquainted to Walsall)

(A version of this article was published in the Walsall v Sheffield United match programme on Saturday 6th April, the start of the Saddlers 125th Anniversary)

Details of Walsall’s 125th Anniversary match against Aston Villa: http://www.saddlers.co.uk/news/article/pre-season-2013-aston-villa-825999.aspx