Next Walsall Manager Odds: Three candidates to replace Michael Flynn
Walsall are searching for a new permanent manager after they parted company with Michael Flynn.
EFL pundit Gab Sutton puts forward the case of three candidates in the next Walsall manager market...
If Walsall want to appeal to fans of the bigger West Midlands clubs when they’re playing away, Kevin Phillips might be a good appointment from a marketing standpoint.
The poacher played for Aston Villa, West Brom, and Birmingham towards the end of his career, helping the latter two with his goals to promotion from the Championship.
Just like Tranmere appointed John Barnes to bring Liverpool fans to Prenton Park, and Stevenage appointed Teddy Sheringham to entice Tottenham supporters, it ultimately doesn’t work out if you don’t have the managerial quality to back it up.
Gates might soar initially, but if the management isn’t up to scratch, results will suffer and outside interest will wane.
The question is, then, is Kevin Phillips a good manager? His work at South Shields suggests, possibly.
KP led the Mariners to a Play-Off Semi-Final after taking charge midway through the 2021-22 campaign, before guiding them to top spot in the Northern Premier League in his first full season.
It’s a club that regularly gets 2K gates in step-3 of non-league, so naturally they would be expected to be strong, and perhaps a manager who won the title in these circumstances - without Phillips’ reputation - would be nowhere near an EFL job.
The worry for Walsall would be leaning too heavily on Phillips’ reputation in order to sell a few extra tickets, and in doing so, miss out on the more organic fits for the job.
Appointing David Artell would certainly mean a change of direction from the Saddlers, seeing as he has different ideas about the game to Michael Flynn, who was backed with 19 new additions last summer, not to mention another six in January.
The good news, though, is that numerous high-earners are out of contract this summer, so there will be some scope to evolve the squad sufficiently to alter the style, if the club are patient enough not to demand an instant transformation.
The 2019-20 League Two promotion winner with Crewe is a possession-based manager who favours a patient, rotation-heavy 4-3-3 system with a modest press.
The 42-year-old likes a goalkeeper with excellent distribution, one aerially dominant defender and one specialist ball-player, unpredictable, technical full-backs, a press-resistant #6, one industrious #8 and another who’s more effervescent, a physical, experienced centre-forward with one quick, direct wide forward and one stealthier type who can rack up the big numbers.
From those descriptions, Walsall have seven players contracted for next season who fit the requirements: Owen Evans, Donervon Daniels, Oisin McEntee, Joe Riley, Isaac Hutchinson, Tom Knowles and Jamille Matt.
However, they need another four to make Artell’s system work, and that’s just in terms of the first XI.
Walsall need full-backs who fit into the strategy, as Joe Foulkes may not be ready to start regularly, even after a productive loan at Kidderminster, and Liam Gordon is more of an athlete who likes to attack the flank directly.
Ironically, Liam Bennett at right-back would be perfect for an Artell team as he’s strong on either foot, but there’s no chance of getting him back from Cambridge after he was recalled from his loan spell in January, and has since starred in League One.
Ryan Cooney is out of contract at Morecambe and while the right-back is right-footed, he’s comfortable turning inside to expand his passing opportunities, which is what Artell wants from his full-backs.
Similarly, Henry Lawrence’s deal at Chelsea is up this summer and although the 21-year-old hasn’t torn up trees in either of his League One loan spells so far, he was incredibly highly-rated at youth level and represented England Under-20s as recently as 2021.
Lawrence is quick, technical, agile and two-footed with the ability to play on either side, and while the likelihood is that he’ll get offers higher up, there’s a chance that in being unproven in senior terms at 21, he slips through the net sufficiently to become attainable in League Two.
Walsall need a deep-lying playmaker who can collect the ball off the defence, turn an opponent, and switch play to a flank, if they’re to play Artell’s style, as Liam Kinsella is out of contract, so is Jacob Maddox, and Brandon Comley doesn’t have the rang for it.
Huddersfield’s Josh Austerfield isn’t quite the complete package just yet, but he has a classy, graceful way with the ball that could be nurtured with the right coaching.
After signing a long-term contract at Huddersfield last summer, Austerfield could be available for a League Two loan, having not played much at Morecambe in League One due to the form of Liam Gibson, Liam Shaw and Jensen Weir.
Aaron Henry, out of contract at Charlton, could also be an option: the midfielder impressed with his passing range at Wealdstone in the National League last season and has since got into the Addicks’ match-day squad frequently in the second half of the campaign.
Playing in a similar position to George Dobson was always going to make breaking in a difficult task, so Henry could be high-potential pickup, if the 19-year-old is keen to start afresh.
Alternatively, Regan Hendry could depart Forest Green this summer, having been loaned out to Tranmere for the second half of the season, and the League Two title-winner could bring a touch of proven class to the midfield, if the likes of Austerfield and Henry are deemed too high-risk.
Elsewhere, Joel Randall’s seven-figure move to Peterborough hasn’t gone quite as hoped, and the direct wide forward could be available once again, possibly on loan, to get his mojo back in League Two.
As seen below, Artell likes to invert his full-backs and retain width via the wide forwards until the latter stages of moves, and have a deep-lying playmaker who can orchestrate moves, which allows his teams to get away with only having one ball-playing specialist in central defence, and one who’s more attritional.
With technical full-backs and a press-resistant #6, Artell’s teams can adapt to wherever the space is: they can combine via the full-back, the outside midfielder and the wide forward on either side, or play a longer pass into the centre-forward, and get up the pitch that way.
Having been a long-serving League One club, Walsall are now preparing for a fifth consecutive season in League Two.
What they probably need is to commit to a long-term vision, yet from a financial and marketing perspective, it’s difficult to tell fans to be patient after the last seven years: supporters aren’t buying season tickets for the team to be good in future - they want to see success in the here and now.
As such, there’s a world in which Walsall don’t feel they can commit to the steps required to make Artell’s style work, nor accept the possibility of a season of transition, which can often come with a change of tack.
If the Saddlers want somebody more likely to adapt to the needs of current personnel, and perhaps improve their short-term prospects, Leam Richardson as a candidate stands out because he’s less wedded to a particular style.
Richardson has won four titles in his career: three as an assistant to Paul Cook, with Chesterfield, Portsmouth and Wigan, inspiring the latter to top honours for a second time as a number one last season.
Cook’s stock has dropped since he stopped working with Richardson in 2020, which suggests his former assistant was bringing plenty of value to the partnership.
Plus, the Yorkshireman has already got the best out of Donervon Daniels at Wigan: one of the best defenders in League Two on his day.
Richardson is capable of galvanizing a club, sometimes in adversity, and excels at creating synergy within a group that can help achieve special things.