Walsall lost one of their most valuable players this week when Coca Cola League One rivals MK Dons snapped up popular striker Jabo Ibehre on a free transfer.
The former Leyton Orient hitman notched the winner for the Saddlers when they grabbed a surprise 1-0 victory at the MK Stadium in their last away game of the season, wrecking their opponents’ automatic promotion hopes, and their manager Roberto Di Matteo obviously realised what a coup he could pull off by getting the Londoner for nothing.
Ibehre was out of contract, and the prospect of losing him for nothing was always a danger when the club failed to offer him on a longer deal quickly enough.
The hard-working striker had scored 11 goals for Walsall, and although his finishing was at times erratic, his workrate was absolutely outstanding and always admired by opposition managers.
I warned in this column some time back that the busy striker would be head-hunted before the next season kicked off, and losing him would be a huge blow. How do you replace a man of his ability when you can’t buy? A massive problem.
The Saddlers have now parted company with both their main front men, Michael Ricketts having been released at the end of the season.
Ibehre said it had been an absolute pleasure playing for Walsall, and added: “I’ve enjoyed my time and it was a fantastic place to come and play football. The supporters took to me straight away and I really enjoyed working with Chris (Hutchings) and Martin (O’ Connor).
“The fans will ask ‘well, if he was so happy then why is he leaving?’, which is understandable.
“Sometimes, though, when you are happy and settled, you need to flip that and take on a new challenge. I did that last summer after a long spell at Leyton Orient and, when the chance to go to MK Dons came up, I felt it was a good move for me.
“It’s nearer to London than Walsall, and being closer to my family and friends is important to me.”
Manager Hutchings said: “I had a long chat with Jabo and he explained the reasons behind his decision.”
Hutchings will obviously have to bring in another striker now to take some of the weight off young Troy Deeney and Alex Nicholls, and he said: “With so many contracts up we were left in a little bit of limbo.
“All players exercise their rights and leave it as long as possible, but we’re left in limbo saying ‘are they or aren’t they staying’.
“We’ve been working behind the scenes and hopefully there can be one or two additions to the squad with those who re-sign.”
Walsall can hardly complain about players hanging on for better offers, because it is the club’s well documented policy not to discuss new deals before the season ends. That leaves some men concerned about their futures so they start looking elsewhere.
On the good news front, top goalkeeper Clayton Ince has now agreed a contract extension, along with reserve goalie Rene Gilmartin, young defenders Manny Smith and Netan Sansara, and utility player Chris Palmer.
That leaves just French winger Sofiene Zaaboub still to make up his mind about whether to go for a second season at Bescot. There are supposed to be plenty of players looking for jobs as clubs cut back on budgets, so Hutchings should have a few options before the big kick-off.
*Walsall have added another pre-season friendly to their build-up programme. They visit League Two Hereford United at Edgar Street on Saturday August 1 (3pm).
Walsall’s new green-and-black replica away kit is now on sale at the Football Shop in Walsall town centre (Friday and Saturday 9am to 5pm), and the Banks’s Stadium club shop (Monday to Friday 9am to 4.30pm), or on line at www.walsallfcstore.co.uk
The prices for shirts are £27.99 for youngsters and £39.99 adults, with shorts at £8.99 and £10.99.
Season ticket holders are reminded that they need to renew their tickets by Saturday before they go on general sale.