Ray Graydon relives great days of Walsall's golden era
To this day he is remembered as a true Walsall legend and a beloved gentleman of the game.
Ray Graydon may be Bristol born and bred – and he became known for scoring Villa’s first ever European goal during a six-year career in claret and blue– but for Saddlers fans, the 72-year-old is the heroic former manager that gave them some of their best ever years.
He took the helm at the Bescot Stadium in 1998, replacing Jan Sørensen as manager. Playing in the old Division Two, Walsall were favourites for relegation having finished 19th in the 1997/98 campaign and operating on a shoestring budget.
Fighting against the multi-million pound budgets of Manchester City, Reading and Fulham – Graydon defied the odds and finished second behind Kevin Keegan’s Fulham, earning automatic promotion to Division One – now the Championship.
“There was no way we were going to win when I went there, there was a gathering of some people that were trying to stay in the league again – and we won promotion,” Graydon said.
“It was brilliant having a group of players that wanted to do what I wanted.
“They knew the football I wanted and how I worked, every minute of every day they worked hard and I could trust them.
“They were fitter than most of the other teams, which was very important.
“It was a great time for me to work with a group of people that wanted to win.”
After making it to Division One, Walsall and Graydon were living the dream.
Taking on some of the big-hitters in the league, the campaign ultimately resulted in failure as the Saddlers were relegated in 22nd place, only three points off Albion and safety. “It was incredible and then we had a decent season when we went up,” Graydon added.
“With a small team we came down again and I remember the day we were relegated.
“I went over to the supporters and they were still shouting even though we went down. Tears were rolling my face and I remember saying ‘I will do everything I can to get that team up again’ – and fortunately we did.”
After that emotional goodbye to Division One, Graydon kept his promise. Against all the odds, again, he masterminded a fourth-placed finish and set up a meeting with Stoke in the play-off semi-final.
First came a 0-0 draw away at the Potters, in front of more than 23,000 people, before Walsall notched a famous 4-2 win in the home leg to reach the final.
On May 27, 2001, Walsall defeated Alan Pardew’s Reading 3-2 after extra-time in front of more than 50,000 spectators at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium to clinch promotion back to Division One at the first attempt.
The secret to his success? It has always been, and ever will be, about the team.
“They weren’t necessarily the best players in the league, they were the best team in the league,” Graydon said.“One of the things they had to deal with was me, first of all. “I wouldn’t have anyone stepping out of line, spending too much time with referees or kicking people up the backside and getting sent off – I wouldn’t have any of that. The players took to it and as always you get tested. It got done very early on with me if anyone was out of line and did something stupid. I rammed that home over and over again, I couldn’t have one of them shouting at referees or kicking over people if we wanted to get promotion.
“We had less than 16 players at one stage and we couldn’t lose any of them to suspension. I always remember the one with Deano (Dean Keates), one match early on – I took him off after about 20 minutes.
“He had flown in and got a booking and looked like he was going to get another one, so I took him off. He came to see me after the game and I said I’d see him on Tuesday when he calmed down. He came in, I sat him down and told him the truth. He was as good a player as anybody else and I wanted to build the team around him, but he had to do it my way.
“He came into the room probably wanting to fight me and he left thinking what a good player he was.”
Although Graydon’s four-year spell with Walsall ended in his sacking part-way through the season – before Colin Lee kept the club in Division One – to this day the admiration for his work with the Saddlers lives on.
All it takes is for the Graydon surname or ‘Sir Ray’ to be mentioned in the presence of a Walsall fan and the memories come flooding back – and for the man himself, they are memories he will never forget.
“Every time I’ve been back to the West Midlands, I get so many people coming up and start kissing me,” he joked. “It makes a tear in my eye every time I go back to Walsall, it’s been absolutely amazing.
“It was a long time go but some people come to me and are so polite and heart-warming.
“One of the things that sticks out is that I’ve had so many people that say ‘Ray, my dad was here when you were here and he had the best time of his life ever and I want to say thank you because he’s now not here’.
“There’s so many of that, people who have passed away and the younger person has come to me and said that – I could crumble on it, it’s absolutely terrific.
“I found it enthralling that I can drive around and remember a lot of the fun and hard work that I did there.
“I really enjoyed being there and it’s something I will never, ever forget.
“It’s as good as anything I could ever dream to do.”