Nobody expected Walsall to scale the heights that they reached in 1998-99. Tom Lines remembers an amazing season
The winner of the 1999 LMA Manager of the Year award wasn’t a huge surprise. Alex Ferguson (the knighthood would follow a few months later) had just led Manchester United to an unprecedented treble, after all. What was remarkable was that Fergie was given a run for his money in the voting by an unassuming 51-year-old enjoying his first season as a manager. That Ray Graydon’s Walsall side had just finished runners-up in Division Two gave his status as the country’s second-best manager a certain symmetry. But given Fergie’s achievements, the fact that Graydon received any votes at all says much about the incredible job that he and his players did that season.
Twelve months earlier the nation’s bookmakers had made the Saddlers relegation favourites and it wasn’t hard to see why. Decent cup runs had papered over the cracks of the previous campaign, with ex-Denmark international Jan Sorensen – a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to Jan Molby’s dissolute older brother – guiding the club to a disappointing 12th place in the table. Despite once playing in a European Cup final, Sorensen’s previous management position had, incredibly, been at a tenpin bowling alley in Tamworth. When Walsall turned to another inexperienced man to replace him the fans were underwhelmed.
Ray Graydon had enjoyed a successful career with Aston Villa and was well respected as a coach but this was hardly the seasoned manager Walsall fans were clamouring for. When the club’s two French stars – striker Roger “brother of Basile” Boli and classy winger Jeff Peron – were both sold before the season began, expectations sank even further. In a division packed with nouveau riche arrivistes (Fulham, Reading, Wigan) and medium-sized clubs slumming it (Preston, Burnley, Stoke), not to mention the newly relegated Manchester City, even a play-off place seemed a distant dream.
Operating with one of the smallest playing budgets in the league, Graydon’s first signings were Darren Wrack, a midfielder recruited from Derby County’s reserves, and Southend United’s Andy Rammell, a player who had once been signed by Sir Alex Ferguson but whose main claim to fame involved having a stand named after him at Atherstone United, built with the proceeds of his move to Old Trafford. They were joined by ex-Everton left-back Neil Pointon and Richard Green, a centre-half so formidable he could dispossess forwards simply by pointing to the scar tissue around his eyes. Green was also notable for being the only one of these players to cost a fee – £35,000 from Northampton Town.
With his sports jackets and soft West Country brogue Graydon may have seemed like an avuncular figure, but his regime at Bescot was characterised by a refreshingly hard line attitude to the players. Out went earrings, mobile phones and travelling to games in tracksuits. In came club ties, a swear jar and pre-season training at a local army camp. As the players lined up for the season’s team photo it was no surprise to see Pointon’s trademark mullet trimmed to a neat short back and sides. In fact, it wasn’t hard to imagine Graydon wielding the clippers himself.
The first game of the season summed up the campaign to come. In 30-degree heat Walsall ground out a 1-0 win at Gillingham thanks to a spectacular 35-yard own goal. Fans spent the rest of the season waiting for the bubble to burst. It never did. A constant fixture in the top six, Graydon made Walsall incredibly hard to beat, especially away from home. In fact, the Saddlers won more league games on the road than any other team in the country – 13 in total; seven by a single goal to nil. Wrack and Rammell were a revelation, the former scoring 14 goals from midfield, the latter almost instantly adored by the fans thanks to his all action style and idiosyncratic stiff-armed clapping of the Saddlers faithful at the end of every game. Rammell repaid the fans’ adoration by scoring 20 goals in a season for the first and only time in his career.
By the middle of April, Walsall and Manchester City were fighting to join runaway leaders Fulham in Division One. City were enjoying a typically eccentric season, hammering Notts County 7-1 and putting six past Burnley at Turf Moor but also finding time to lose to relegated York and Lincoln. With just four games remaining, the Saddlers travelled to Lincoln, with Man City hosting Wycombe. Darren Wrack’s solitary goal bagged all three points for the Saddlers while City somehow contrived to lose 2-1. Walsall’s fate was now in their own hands – a win against Oldham in their next game would ensure promotion.
The Latics were duly dispatched and the Saddlers had the luxury of two remaining games in which to celebrate – a mutual love-in with Fulham at Bescot and 90 extremely enjoyable minutes at the Britannia Stadium revelling in the confirmation of our status as the best team in Staffordshire. Even Graydon’s carefully honed inscrutability slipped briefly when he revealed that the tension of the final month of the season had adversely affected his conjugal obligations to Mrs Graydon. Fulham’s Kevin Keegan was awarded the Division Two Manager of the Season gong but was quick to say that it should have gone to Graydon. Judging by the votes cast at the LMA awards a fair few other managers agreed.
The following campaign wasn’t quite so romantic, with Walsall relegated on the last day of the season, but it at least allowed Graydon to prove that promotion had been no fluke as he promptly steered the club to an immediate return to the First Division with victory in the 2001 play-off final. He was to be denied another crack at keeping Walsall in the second tier when he was sacked after a particularly poor display at West Brom in January 2002. A spell at Bristol Rovers was followed by a brief period coaching in China but Graydon never managed to replicate the astounding success he achieved with Walsall. Still revered at Bescot, the club’s fans decided that if Alex Ferguson deserved a knighthood for his achievements then so did Ray Graydon. To this day, Saddlers fans simply know him as “Sir Ray”.
From WSC 270 August 2009