The Big Interview: I will always be a Walsall fan says Jorge Leitao
Every football fan has been there.
Your team dips into the transfer market to land an unknown foreign striker who you can’t help but pin your hopes on.
Everyone knows it’s a gamble.
They could struggle to adapt to English football. Or they could be a revelation and score the goals that lead to unforgettable memories. Thankfully for Walsall, Jorge Leitao was the latter.
The Portuguese striker was snapped up by the Saddlers in July 2000 after impressing in three trial games.
In his first season, he fired them to promotion into what is now the Championship.
And in his second he not only scored the goal that kept them in the division, he also netted a brace to sink Premier League Charlton in the FA Cup.
But while Leitao arrived on these shores a complete unknown, it took legendary Saddlers boss Ray Graydon next to no time to spot his potential.
“My move to Walsall all started because of my agent,” Leitao said.
“He said there was an opportunity to have a trial with Walsall and if I did well I could get a move to England.
“I was actually on holiday when Walsall called me. So I cut it short by a week and went home to train, I didn’t want to arrive unfit. In my first week we trained at Lilleshall and we played two behind-closed-doors friendlies.
“Then I was asked to join the team for a week in Scotland.
“I lined up to start our first public friendly of the summer and there were quite a few people watching, a few scouts from clubs.
“Ray took me off at half-time and I was disappointed. I was desperate to impress. But after the game, he took me to one side and said he wanted to sign me.
“He took me off because he didn’t want the other scouts to notice me.”
A modest Leitao says it took him time to adapt to English football.
“It wasn’t easy at first, the pace of the game was much faster and much quicker than in Portugal,” he continued. “It was physically more than anything else, the pace was really quick. But after a few games I got used to it and it suited me because I always worked hard and chased players.”
The truth is Leitao took to English football like a duck to water.
He scored four goals in his first six games and eight in his first 15. And he ended the campaign with 21 in all competitions, with the Saddlers finishing fourth in the Second Division.
That led to the Saddlers going on to win promotion after overcoming Reading in a thrilling play-off final at the Millennium Stadium.
“That game was as good as playing in the Champions League final,” Leitao said. “I’ll never forget it. I’d never played in a stadium like it and the atmosphere was fantastic. Walsall’s fans were absolutely incredible.”
Leitao wasn’t the only foreigner in the squad with Spaniards Zigor Aranalde and Pedro Matias as well as Hungarian Gabor Bukran all adding a touch of continental quality.
The team also had some big English characters with Jimmy Walker, Chris Marsh, Dean Keates and Darren Wrack all integral to the side. And Leitao believes they were successful because of the fantastic team spirit them enjoyed.
“We had a very good team,” he continued. “We had three or four foreigners playing. Two from Spain, me from Portugal one from Hungry.
“But I think we had a good group of players. We weren’t just playing for ourselves, we were always playing for the team.
“We also had a really good manager in Ray Graydon, he knew the league like nobody else.
“Having that tight group and having Ray as manager, that was the key to our success. But things are so much easier when you are enjoying training and enjoying being with the other players.
“When you have got players like Wacka (Walker), Marshy, Keatesy and Wracky you are going to enjoy yourself.
“We enjoyed being with each other. When we woke up in the morning, we never dreaded training – we were always happy to go in.
“You wanted to see the guys, you knew you were going to laugh. Ray was really strict. But before and after, training was always so much fun.”
With Walsall in the thick of a relegation battle the following year, owner Jeff Bonser made the controversial decision to sack Graydon in a bid to stay in English football’s second tier.
Colin Lee took over as his successor. But while the news came as a shock at the time, Leitao felt the decision kept the team up.
“Ray was a brilliant manager,” he said. “But a manager is judged on results and we weren’t getting them at the time.
“They wanted to make a change and bring in someone new. And they brought in Colin Lee and I think trying something new helped us.
“Our first game was Charlton in the FA Cup and we won the game. That was an important result for us because it got us believing again that we could win games.
“Beating a Premier League team gave us hope that we could beat relegation.
“I scored two goals in that game and they are two of my favourite goals. The goals were nice but the fact it was against a Premier League team and in the FA Cup made it extra special.”
Following an upturn in results, Walsall hosted Sheffield United on the penultimate day of the campaign knowing a win would secure their Division One status with a game to spare.
Leitao got the only goal in a 1-0 victory.
And in the 2002/2003 season, they went on to stay up comfortably after Leitao formed an outstanding strike partnership with Brazilian Junior.
“The following year I played with Junior up front and we had a really good partnership,” the 45-year-old continued.
“We scored a lot of goals. I think it was about 30 between us. He was Brazilian I was Portuguese and we just clicked.
“I knew what he was going to do before he did it. We really connected. We didn’t really need to speak, it was instant.
“Junior struggled, in the beginning, to adapt to the pace of the game and to do the things Colin Lee wanted.
“But I spoke with him so many times about it and quickly he began to understand what he needed to do to play.
“We avoided relegation with three or four games to go that year.
“Then Junior went to Derby and the following season Colin Lee was replaced by Paul Merson but we got relegated. I then played another season in League before leaving in January.”
After five years in England, Leitao started to become homesick. And when the opportunity arose to join Beira-Mar back in Portugal, Walsall agreed to let him go due to the loyalty he had shown in his time at the Banks’s.
“I always said I would never leave Walsall for another club in England,” the striker said. “I’d been feeling homesick for a while. There were just little things I really missed.
“Then the opportunity came up to join Beira-Mar. They were in the equivalent of the Portuguese Championship at the time and were competing for promotion into the top flight.
“Being homesick it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss and when I spoke to Walsall, they said they would let me go back to Portugal if that’s what I wanted.
“When they agreed to it I had really mixed feelings. I was sad because everyone had taken me in, all the fans had been fantastic with me and I was leaving them. But it was something I needed to do and the following season I was playing in the Portuguese Premier League and that is something every Portuguese player wants to do.”
Leitao got a hero’s reception when – for the first time in 12 years – he returned to Walsall back in October.
The striker walked out onto the pitch at half-time during the Saddlers clash with Wycombe. He then played in a charity match on the same weekend.
“To come back was great,” he added. “The reception I had from the fans was amazing. It was unbelievable. “I left 12 years ago so coming back to watch a have that reception was really special.“Sometimes it’s hard to believe, the fans they remember everything. It’s really nice. But I am one of them now.
“I am a Walsall fan. My teams are Porto in Portugal and Walsall in England. And I follow their results every week. I will always be a Saddler.”