By Tony Leighton
After a 9,000-mile round trip for his team's pre-season tour of Trinidad & Tobago, Walsall manager Dean Smith is looking forward to a good number of short-haul journeys in the 2013/14 Sky Bet 'Midland' League 1 season.
A quarter of the division's clubs are within 45 miles of the Banks's Stadium, with relegated Wolverhampton Wanderers just nine miles down the A454 and the team which will provide the biggest of 12 local derbies that the Saddlers will play in what should be a keenly fought battle for regional bragging rights.
"It's going to be a tough season but it should be enjoyable too, especially with all those derby games," Smith told football-league.co.uk.
"The supporters are already buzzing about our games against Wolves, but we've also got one of my old clubs, Port Vale, after their promotion and the likes of Shrewsbury and Coventry as well so there's lots to look forward to.
"We're going into the campaign really well-prepared after a good pre-season that we started with an excellent week in Trinidad & Tobago.
"We won two and drew the other one of the fixtures we played, all three of them good, competitive games, and it was also great for team bonding with the lads getting in some snorkeling, golf and doing some coaching in the community.
"We've got one last pre-season game, a very special one against Aston Villa on Wednesday night, and then we'll be raring to go for our first League match."
The meeting with Premier League club Villa - another near-neighbour - is to mark Walsall's 125th anniversary, coinciding with The Football League's own 125th. Villa were the opponents in Walsall's first match all those years ago, so it will be a fitting way to celebrate the Saddlers' milestone.
Then it's down to business, with Tranmere Rovers set to visit the Banks's Stadium for Saturday's Sky Bet League 1 opener as Smith's team kick-off a campaign in which expectations will be higher than for some time after their impressive second half of last season saw them finish ninth in the table.
"We looked unbeatable at times towards the end of the season," said Smith, "and our style of football pleased the fans, as the early-bird season ticket sales proved.
"But I think this season's going to be tougher, because the clubs coming down and the ones coming up are financially stronger than the teams going out.
"Expectations on us will be high, but no higher than my own. My aim at the start of any season is to finish first. As the season pans out you may have to re-adjust, but when you go into the season you should aim for that top spot.
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