The thirty third installment in our Great Teams series sees us remain in the midlands. Nathan Briant has recently blogged on the appointment of Roy Hodgson as England manager but here, he casts his mind back to an entertaining Walsall side from just over a decade ago, one whom one member of the TTU staff remembers with much anguish after an unhappy visit to the Millennium stadium. Nathan can be followed on Twitter at @nathanbriant.
There was a time, briefly, when Walsall were able to challenge for the top few places of what was Division Two.
Ray Graydon, despite never managing a club before, was an inspiration after he took charge in 1998: two promotions from Division Two were delivered in three seasons, a quickly-forgotten relegation sandwiched between them. He built the foundations for an improbable three-year stay in the second tier, beginning in 2001.
Piercings, if any players had them, were out; discipline was brought in; far removed from the lax attitude employed by his predecessor Jan Sorensen.
Some players weren’t happy with the regimented structure. Mark Robins, a player who decided to leave the club at the end of the 1999/2000 season after one year at Bescot, called Walsall’s regimen ‘ridiculous’.
‘We were expected to turn up for training clean-shaven. And we had to wear a collar and tie, just coming into training. It was silly discipline,’ he said.
Robins went on to be automatically promoted with Rotherham the following season, finishing second, 10 points ahead of Walsall in fourth, but the Saddlers beat the Millers 3-2 at Millmoor in the first game of the season, despite the ex-Manchester United man scoring twice against his former club.
The squad that had been relegated on the last day of the season at Ipswich in May 2000 remained largely the same. Tom Bennett had signed from Stockport permanently after being on loan with Walsall the season before and Paul Hall arrived from Coventry in a similar arrangement. For £150,000, Jorge Leitão was brought over from Portuguese side Feirense after impressing on a pre-season tour of Scotland while fellow strikers Darren Byfield and Brett Angell arrived. Zigor Aranalde arrived from Spain just as the season began.
Adrian Viveash left for Reading and Michael Ricketts was transferred to Bolton for £400,000. Gino Padula left for Wigan despite winning the club’s Player of the Season award the season before.
After the Rotherham game, 3-2 and 4-1 wins followed and the Saddlers found themselves sitting top of Division Two. A huge away cattendance of 1,020 – they don’t get crowds going to games like that anymore, unless the game is absolutely critical – saw them go down to their first defeat to Bury at Gigg Lane in September, but they kept their place. At the start of December their form started to decline and they dropped out of the automatic promotion places. By March, they’d dropped to fourth. That’s where they completed the season.
New players arrived to pepper the team with experience throughout. Jamaican international Fitzroy Simpson came in and stayed for a couple of years; former Barcelona player (well, he played one game) Ronnie Ekelund came in for nine matches and left to have couple of years in San Jose playing for the Earthquakes. A 35-year-old Don Goodman was brought in on a free transfer from Motherwell to add extra guile to an already impressive forward line on deadline day in mid-March. Barry Horne was signed to giprovide back up to a central midfield – Bennett, Dean Keates and Gábor Bukrán – that had played the entire season without any other support.
Walsall drew 0-0 with Stoke at the Britannia Stadium and then impressively beat them 4-2 at home in the play-off semi-finals. Stoke’s goalkeeper Gavin Ward, who went on to be second-choice to Jimmy Walker at Walsall a year later in Division One, scored an own goal, Pedro Matias scored a brace and Dean Keates the other.
It set up a final against Reading, who had beaten Wigan dramatically in the other play-off semi-final, scoring two goals in the last five minutes to win 2-1 over two legs. Because of the rebuilding of Wembley, the final was played at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, ensuring that Walsall didn’t get a chance to play at the national stadium for the first time. They still haven’t, eleven years later.
The game started badly: Jimmy Walker let a Jamie Cureton shot squirm through his hands and dribble into the back of his net on 31 minutes. A goalmouth scramble from a Dean Keates corner could have made it 1-1 just before half-time, but the Saddlers finally equalised on 48 minutes; Goodman looping a header past Phil Whitehead in the Reading goal.
Andy Tillson sent a long shot just wide on 79 minutes and the game entered extra time. Within a minute, Walsall were back behind. Martin Butler scored Reading’s second and proceeded to run towards the Reading fans, punching the air and shouting ‘fucking come on!’, perhaps surprising as he was facing his former club.
A Darren Byfield shot cannoned off Reading substitute Tony Rougier and past Whitehead to make it 2-2 just after the start of the second half of extra time before a long-range Byfield shot made it 3-2 two minutes later. Walsall held out for the win and unlikely promotion.
In the late Geoff Allman’s book on Walsall’s Finest Fifty Matches, he records that the 27th May, the day of the play-off final, was Ray Graydon’s wife’s birthday. What he does not add is that Walsall’s manager had confided in the press that he was finding the stress of his job so much that he and his wife could not have sex. Whether or not that problem was rectified on the night of the play-off final can only be known for certain by Mr and Mrs Graydon.
Perhaps you’re able to remember a time when Championship Manager allowed you to shell out massive funds on transfer fees as a Football League boss. Walsall, I remember, had usually over a million pounds to spend on players. I tended to prefer free transfers – still do, actually – but the option was there if you needed it. There must have been a reason for this and one I can think of, off the top of my head, is that such transfer fees were a eality at some clubs.
No, not at Walsall, obviously. Only two players in their squad – Leitão and Andy Tillson: a £10,000 capture from Bristol Rovers – had commanded a transfer fee. Yet Reading’s team had been brought with a Championship Manager-sized budget: Butler was bought for £750,000, Barry Hunter for £400,000, Rougier for £325,000, Nicky Forster for £650,000. Some unofficial Reading sites suggest that only Adrian Viveash and James Harper, who had moved from Arsenal, were brought in on a free transfers. Every other player had been paid for.
Walsall brought 15,000 fans, Reading 35,000 fans to the Millennium Stadium. Reading, undisputedly the bigger club, had to stay in Division Two for one more season before promotion guided by Alan Pardew.
It says a lot of the size, ambition and investment open to the clubs that as Walsall found themselves in the basement tier in the 2006/7 season, Reading found themselves in the Premier League, and staying up under Steve Coppell. Walsall had the last laugh in 2001 but their play-off rivals Wigan, Stoke and Reading will all be playing in the Premier League next season; Walsall have only narrowly avoided being stuck back in League Two.
It might say something about Walsall’s scouting network that a number of players involved on that day returned to the club after a first spell had come to an end. Jimmy Walker is there and currently being used as a second-choice goalkeeper. He left Walsall for West Ham after the club’s Division One stay ended in 2004.
Martin Butler, Dean Keates and Paul Hall were all brought back to the club by Richard Money in 2006 and won the League Two championship. Chris Hutchings brought back Walker and Darren Byfield, in a move which quickly turned sour after a promising spell on a short-term contract led that to be extended for 18 months before his form dried up suspiciously quickly. The next club to pick him up, a few months ago, was Solihull Moors, a West Midlands non-league club.
From all those players, Dean Keates is the only one playing regularly at a professional level. At Wrexham presently, if promoted to the Football League this season with the Conference National club, he will celebrate the seventh promotion of his career. Three of those were with Walsall.
Ian Brightwell, according to the Manchester Evening News, is a property developer. The same newspaper says that Tony Barras, now 41, plays football twice on a Saturday every week and is a plasterer during the day. Left-back Zigor Aranalde was released by Paul Merson and briefly joined Sheffield Wednesday before becoming a fans’ favourite at Carlisle. He’s working as an assistant manager at Albacete but until last year worked as Gus Poyet’s chief scout at Brighton.
Paul Hall is a coach at Tamworth, not far from Walsall, and has a part-time hip-hop career on the side with the band SKO.
According to other sources – namely Wikipedia – Barry Horne is now teaching at an independent school in Chester, Carl Emberson lives in Spain and Brett Angell has a job coaching in New Zealand. Matt Gadsby, a youth team product, who was released by Walsall a season after the play-off win, died in 2006 playing for Hinckley United in non-league, the result of an undiagnosed heart condition.
Other members of the squad who didn’t play that day have gone onto have careers elsewhere. Mark Wright, who made three appearances that season, now plays for Shrewsbury and has turned out for MK Dons, Brighton and Bristol Rovers. Incidentally, Dion Scott, then a young central defender who only played for the club in the LDV Vans Trophy that season, was quickly released and drifted into non-league football, although his brother, David Davis, is now a regular in Wolves’ first team. Davis had a loan spell with Walsall in 2010.
Pedro Matias was released by Walsall in 2004, drifted into lower league football and then moved back to Spain. Jorge Leitão became homesick during Paul Merson’s tenure and was released as a recognition of his service to the club.
The club Leitão joined in 2000 was one markedly over-achieving. By the time he’d left, it had either taken a tumble into a hole of underachievement or was one happy to accept the staggeringly average. That is how it remains, years later.