Walsall, Cypriot Flags and Freedom of Speech

By Ian  |   The Ball  |   May 13, 2010  |     18

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.

Regards,

Ian

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Ian

Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.

Comments
  • May 14, 2010 at 8:15 am

    Wayne Swift

    Firstly, in response to the post above, i would like to point out that the IDIOT (i use the word idiot in response to the posters description of two of the banned supporters)above, cant even use his own name to give his point of view. What does this say about the coward leaving the comment? The real Dave Roe is a life long supporter, home and away, and would never post such drivel. Perhaps the above poster can come out and give his real name if he feels so strongly about the situation, instead of trying to tarnish the name of a respected supporter? Incidentally, the same person that has pathetically used the name of Dave Roe to post on The Express & Star website giving similarly biased views.

    Incidentally, i am one of the banned supporters, and the above post contains many soundbites and phrases used constantly by people at WFC in response to reasonable e-mails and questions sent to the club over the years. Also, in response to the above remark about the club answering all questions fully in 2009, all i can say is DONT MAKE ME LAUGH! If the questions had been answered “fully”, then why are there so many unhappy supporters, voting with their feet, and still trying to get answers?

    I dont need to hide behind someone elses name like the pathetic individual above. I am proud to be a Walsall supporter, and i wont rest until the club either swallow their pride for once, and admit to their past mistakes and make a concerted effort to engage with the fans, open meaningful dialogue, become transparent in every aspect of the running of the club, show REAL ambition,(i.e.not to purposely throw away a play off position thus losing a large proportion of dissalusioned supporters)and lose the draconion approach at dealing with their own paying customers. Its not a lot to ask from a “proffessional football club” (i use the term loosely) and if these small points cannot be achieved, then the only way forward is to pray for a complete new regime from top to bottom

  • May 14, 2010 at 9:10 am

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  • May 14, 2010 at 9:54 am

    Belgian Saddler

    I would like to second Wayne Swift’s post above as the first post is clearly an attempt to rubbish the name of a well respected Walsall supporter who is also a well known supporter of the protests. The coward who has posted this has also done so under Dave’s name on other websites including the Express and Star. The initial poster clearly holds similar views to the club when it comes to freedom of speech and has difficulty accepting others with an alternative point of view. Post under your real name you coward.

    I am pleased that you pointed out the difference in the disturbances at Sheffield Wednesday etc and the ones at Walsall last week. Unity may be a fledgling movement and may still be in the process of clarifying it’s short, medium and long term goals. However, since the very start the organisers have stressed the need for peaceful protests, no swearing, no OTT abuse and certainly no violence. The protestors have indeed been praised by Dave Storr the stadium manager for the way they have conducted themselves. Dave Storr seems to be one of the few at the club who is prepared to show respect when he talks to the fans and when, after a sit in of about 40-45 minutes, Dave politely suggested that we had got our point across and asked if we would leave the ground, we did immediately.

    There have been fans movements before trying to get open dialogue with the club and get behind some of the mysteries surrounding the transfer of the freehold from the club to Mr Bonser and the subsequent need to pay rent. The club have simply refused to communicate with these groups in any meaningful way. The irony of the current draconian bans on supporters for expressing their views is that our current Chief Executive Roy Whalley, the one throwing bans round like confetti, himself emerged out of a fans protest movement in the 1980s. The further irony of stewards ripping down a banner with ‘Freedom of Speech’ and ejecting the supporter who put it up will also no doubt be lost on the powers that be.

    I genuinely fear for the future of WFC. The club should be doing everything it can to attract fans, not banning them indiscriminantly. We want our Walsall back

  • May 14, 2010 at 9:58 am

    jeef boner

    Dave Roe above is quite funny. It’s always good when a club stooge gets involved on a bigger stage, hoping that nobody else will contradict them.

    Can I state that the club have some great people, but jeff bonser is not one of them, and nor are his apologists. Questions from last year, the year before and two decades ago still remain unanswered, which is why they are still being asked.

  • May 14, 2010 at 10:04 am

    Alex Hamilton

    Why is it that smaller clubs have to go through all these trials? Why do they attract owners that basically appear to be using the clubs as retirement funds? We’ve been through the same at Wrexham, once for definite,which saw us fall down the league through no fault of the fans (just a blind FA who can’t grasp that clubs exist outside of the Premier circus) and currently have a similar situation,where there is still mistrust with the current owners,who have been extremely shady with their dealings thus far,even at one point taking legal action to attempt to silence criticism on the fans forum site.
    In Walsall’s case,I see exactly the same situation.Stick to your guns, and don’t let them bully you,they may own the physical assets of the club,but its beating heart will always belong to the fans.
    Keep the faith!

  • May 14, 2010 at 10:25 am

    tinned

    Please remove the first post on this discusion as it is from an unkown person posting under my name.

    There have been similar incidents on the Express & Star website where I’ve had to report the posts to have them removed.

    (Note to moderators: you can see by my email address that I am who I say I am. Therefore please remove the post).

    I have no problem whatsoever with people holding opposite views but I think it a bit sad when they are not big enough to do it under their own name (or at least a name people using Walsall messageboards will recognise).

  • May 14, 2010 at 11:08 am

    Near Post Header

    God forbid there could be more than one Dave Roe in the world. For what it’s worth I agree with his post. I have seen the clubs answers and find them to answer all questions posed. However because certain fans do not like the answers they just ask the same questions again. Of course the club is going to react.

    Why are the fans doing this?

    Why are the fans doing this?

    Why are the fans doing this?

    Why are the fans doing this?

    Why are the fans doing this?

    Why are the fans doing this?

    You get the gist….annoying isnt it?!

  • May 14, 2010 at 11:48 am

    Rob Powell - DarloSaddler

    When the club stated that they wished to move on what they really meant was that they intended to carry on in the same old way once the fans had shut up. The treatment of the lad with the ‘Freedom Of Speech’ banner was appalling and he is quite possibly now wondering whether to attend games at all. Whalley’s like-it-or-lump-it stance has now become tedious to the extreme and has made him an even bigger laughing stock than the club itself, causing the gulf between the club and the supporter to widen to Grand Canyon proportions. The protests have been provoked by the attitude(s) coming from the club heirarchy, everyone can see this but them. They appear to be going for the Heads-In-Sand world record.

    Bonser and Whalley have set themselves up as thinking they’re beyond criticism, which is what happens in any dictatorship worthy of the name. I seriously doubt that the fracture in relations between WFC and its’ match-going faithful can ever be healed with these two still at the club. That’s the simple truth whether they want to accept it or not.

    Oh, by the way, Dave Roe, I’ve used my real name and my internet username. Please feel free to have a go at either. I can’t wait…

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