Walsall legend Jimmy Walker has spoken of his sadness at leaving the club he served so well. Nick Mashiter reports.
“The best thing which ever happened to me was I came for a cross in the first minute at Scarborough thinking I was the big ‘I am’ and I got absolutely butchered,” smiles Jimmy Walker. “That brought me down to earth.”
Walker was still establishing himself at Walsall as they closed in on promotion with a 2-1 win at Scarborough in 1995.
He leaves a legend. A record 534 appearances – a total which will never be beaten – etches him into the Saddlers’ history. But everything ends and after the 39-year-old failed to marry coaching with playing he left by mutual consent last week.
A calf injury hampered his coaching and meant he didn’t to play a game this season. Ultimately, his early departure was inevitable.
And he admits it is a sad end to a Saddlers career that saw three promotions and, after he returned in 2010, the memorable Great Escape.
“I’m disappointed to finish like this and I wouldn’t have wanted to,” said a relaxed Walker in a quiet Alcester pub. “The hardest thing is, when you’ve affected somewhere so positively for such a long time, to actually be there and not contribute. I was watching games and not being involved and it was driving me mad. I was grumpy because of it. I had to drive up from Essex which I didn’t mind, I’d been doing it for almost three years.
“But I’d be late a few times, moaning because I’d been stuck in traffic and not giving the best I could give. In the end I was thinking ‘I don’t want it to end this way’ but I probably couldn’t change it that quickly for the season so maybe it was the right time.
“Fortunately all the good things outweigh the disappointment I have of leaving.”
Walker is yet to officially retire but concedes that will come in the summer, ending a 570-game career which took him from Notts County to Walsall and onto West Ham, Tottenham and back to the Saddlers.
Injury in the 2005 Championship play-off final and eventual replacements meant he made just 20 appearances for the Hammers – picking up an FA Cup losers medal in 2006 as an unused substitute.
A 2009 switch to Spurs as back- up to Heurelho Gomes and Carlo Cudicini followed – where Rafael van der Vaart nicknamed him the ‘King’ after impressive training sessions. He turned down the chance to coach under Harry Redknapp to return to Walsall a year later and helped save them from the drop in 2011 after Dean Smith succeeded Chris Hutchings.
And breaking the club’s appearance record in a 0-0 draw at Brentford last season was the carrot which kept him going, easing the pain of his biggest Saddlers regrets.
“That made staying worthwhile,” recalled Walker, who lists Walsall’s 1999 promotion to Division One as his best. “When you play you never have a big thing for records but now I think ‘what a great achievement’. The club has been a huge part of my life.
“My biggest regret in football is leaving when we went down in 2004 but I knew the way it was going to go. We should have been in the Championship for years to come but we missed a trick.
“Now I hope they get to the play- offs and get to Wembley – that’ll be another massive regret, though, because I’ve never played there.
“We missed out a couple of times in the Auto Windscreens Shield. Wayne Evans scored an own goal at Bournemouth in the semi-final in 1998 and we lost. Pete Waterman was going to give us a cup final record and I was going to be lead singer. We were going to do a team song and on the B side I was going to sing Suspicious Minds solo. I couldn’t talk Pete into it after we were knocked out.”
There’s was no swansong for Walker – his last Walsall appearance came in the final day 1-0 win at MK Dons last season, leaving no chance to say a proper goodbye.
Impending retirement, though, leaves more time for sons Thomas, 13, and 16-month-old Ethan and the chance to focus on his coaching badges.
And Walker is content, 40 in July he knows he cannot go on forever. He is ready for the next chapter.
“I’ve done it for 23 years and you’re spoilt rotten. All you’ve got to do is be on time – which I failed miserably at,” he jokes.
“Now it’s strange. You wake up in the morning and think ‘I’ve got to get to training . . . no, hang on I don’t’. It’s exciting times. If something comes up with the coaching I’ll have a look at it but at the moment I’m happy to sit back and reflect. The fat boy from Mansfield did alright.”