The old Fellows Park football ground at Walsall was one of my favourite venues for watching the beautiful game. Whether it’s my obsession with standing out in the cold under leaky tin roofs on uneven terraces, or purely that I had a huge crush on Tina Fillery, who used to stand on the Hillary Street End with her friend Jo and cousin Michelle, I don’t know – but Fellows Park was special.
For the record, Tina and I met at the idyllic setting of Doncaster Railway station after the Saddlers had just lost a Third Division game 1-0 at Donny Rovers’ ‘rustic’ old Belle Vue stadium. Together we watched Walsall at some wonderful places such as Brentford, Bournemouth and Rotherham United. Who said romance in football was dead?
You can travel all around the West Midlands and you’ll discover historic places that have a story to tell. The Industrial revolution had made the Black Country the heartbeat of our nation, but as the 20th century drew to a close the once proud factories, like our great stadiums, became run down and decayed. Fellows Park, I’m afraid, was no exception.
Fellows Park was indeed steeped with history. On January 14th 1933 possibly the biggest FA Cup upset of all time took place at the ground. A crowd of 11,150 witnessed goals from Gilbert Alsop and Bill Shepard as the Saddlers put pay to First Division Champions Arsenal. Although in later years Manchester United, still a scalp despite being a Second Division side, were turned over, the Arsenal match was still the one talked about by generations of Walsall fans.
There is no doubt the bigger teams did not enjoy playing at the small, cramped stadium. I remember during the 1985/86 season witnessing an FA Cup match in the snow at the ground, when Walsall played Manchester City. The pitch was ankle deep in the white stuff – in today’s climate the game would have been abandoned, but footballers were real men back then. The elements simply added to the occasion, there was no way a few inches of snow was going to call a halt to a tie in the world’s greatest Cup competition!
The Saddlers took the lead mid-way through the first half with a penalty from Richard O’Kelly. The City players, particularly the goalkeeper, were being pelted with snowballs – they clearly didn’t fancy it. Sadly in the end, fitness and class told, the Manchester giants won the game with three second-half goals. I’ll never forget the atmosphere from the Hillary Street End that day, particularly when Walsall scored – absolutely electric!
I also remember a game during the same campaign when Walsall played a Third Division match against runaway league leaders Reading. The Saddlers needed to win the match in order to keep in touch with the promotion pack. The Fellows Park crowd got right behind the team but I’d bet none of them could have imagined what the outcome would be.
Reading simply had no answers to Walsall’s all out attacking style, a trademark of former manager Alan Buckley. Buckley was and indeed still is the Saddlers’ all-time leading scorer with 202 goals in two spells either side of a stint with Birmingham City. The attacking magic was very much in evidence on this particular afternoon as Walsall swamped Reading, running out easy 6-0 winners. Despite eventually missing out on promotion, Walsall scored over 100 League and Cup goals during that particular season.
A Saddlers hero of this particular era was striker David Kelly. As a child Kelly suffered from Perthes Disease, which is a deformity of the hip bone, however his determination helped him recover and go on to forge a successful career in professional football.
Kelly progressed through the ranks at Fellows Park, scoring a succession of goals and inevitably attracting interest from the bigger clubs. Just before Kelly left Walsall for West Ham United, he made his international debut for the Republic of Ireland. He didn’t disappoint the Irish fans, grabbing a hat trick on his debut as they swamped Israel 5-0.
Kelly’s time at Upton Park was not a happy one. Whether or not he simply didn’t make it in the top division or was hit by the fact that he joined a particularly poor West Ham team who were heading for relegation, who knows? He moved on to Leicester City, Newcastle United, Sunderland, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield United, Tranmere Rovers, Motherwell, Mansfield Town and Derry City, where he enjoyed more successful times scoring 196 goals in 606 appearances before becoming a highly regarded football coach. He is constantly linked with a return to Walsall as a manager, and there is no doubt he would be well received by the Saddlers supporters should he ever return.
Walsall played their last match at Fellows Park on May 1st 1990. The team had endured a horrific season and had long since been relegated when Rotherham United arrived for the ground’s closing chapter. The match resulted in an uneventful 1-1 draw with full back Andy Dornan taking the honour of scoring the Saddlers’ last League goal at the ground.
I recall visiting Fellows Park for the penultimate home fixture against Tranmere Rovers. As I walked out of the railway station, the newly built Bescot Stadium stood right in front of me, almost completed ready for the next chapter in the history of Walsall Football Club. I remember feeling slightly empty and thinking it’ll never be the same. Although I’ve visited the Bescot on numerous occasions the ground has never quite given me the same buzz that Fellows Park did.
I always thought that when the club vacated its home of almost 100 years, instead of demolishing Fellows Park, it should have been moved brick by brick to the nearby Black Country Museum. That way the old brigade amongst us could still pop along and watch staged matches containing players in unsponsored, baggy kits on a pitch ankle-deep in mud with a ball the weight of several house bricks! Yes they certainly missed a trick there; the stadium developers of modern day will never recreate another Fellows Park, Layer Road or even Gay Meadow. It’s the death of football realism – how sad!
Instead, the current crop of footballing custodians will continue to beat every ounce of nostalgia out of the more romantic fans amongst us. Soon all football stadiums will look much the same. Only the colour of the seats will give some kind of clue as to where you are.
Even after the stadium had long gone I was involved in, or should I say I endured some drama there. I parked my brand new car just in front of where the old wooden grandstand stood, however, instead of a football pitch now it was a car park for Morrisons supermarket. After returning to the car from shopping I discovered the car had been involved in a hit and run incident. Some bright spark had smashed into the front before speeding off. The day did not get any better as Walsall thrashed my beloved Southend United 5-2!
Being married to Victoria, a ‘Black Country wench’, I still watch Walsall from time to time when visiting her folks. The family mixture of South East Essex and West Midlands has left my two sons Alfie and Stanley with a somewhat unusual accent, and this is not aided by the vocal tones of the crowd at the Saddlers’ new Bescot Stadium.
But twenty-five years on since my first visit the songs are still the same. As the choir behind the goal in the Gilbert Alsop stand belts out a chorus of “Running down the Wednesbury Road” my mind turns back to Fellows Park. The memories, the players, the goals, the fans, the balti pies – and I ask myself… whatever happened to Tina Fillery?