Walsall feature: Jimmy Walker's 14 years between the sticks
The term ‘legend’ is often thrown around, but for Jimmy Walker it’s apt – ask any fan at the Banks’s Stadium.
A record 534 appearances and three promotions will ensure that status in anyone’s book.
Known as 'Wacka', he was picked up by Walsall after being released by Notts County in 1993, but according to the man himself, football may not have been the path he took – were it not for then Walsall coach Paul Taylor and manager Kenny Hibbitt.
“I was at a crossroads where I could have been that person in the pub that says ‘I could have been a player’,” he told the Express & Star. “I had a great time at Notts County but got an injury there and sort of came away from football. I went off for around two months and eventually spoke to Paul Taylor.
“Him and Kenny Hibbitt had watched me a few times and Paul rang me a few times but I batted it off, I was debating what to do.
“I didn’t deal with the rejection very well at all, it was tough, I lost my head a little bit.
“I’d just come back from Tenerife and had been out for at least a month, had put some weight on, and a call came in from Paul and my dad answered it. He tried to get me out of bed to speak to him, but I just said I’d ring him back.
“I had a chat with my dad after that and he said I needed to sort my life out, so I got back in touch with Paul and I started with Walsall the next day.”
From there, success wasn’t far around the corner.
He earned promotion from Division Three in 1994/95, finishing second under Chris Nicholl, before achieving two promotions to Division One over three years, first as runners-up in 1998/99 and second through the play-offs in 2000/01 – both under Ray Graydon.
It was the dream start for Walker’s footballing career at a time where he picked up two Walsall player-of-the-year awards in 1998/99 and 2001/02 – alongside getting into the Division Two team of the year in 2000/01.
“It was an amazing time, the first 10 years were incredible,” Walker added. “Year-on-year we looked good, we almost did something with Kenny.
“Then Chris came in and to this day he’s probably the best manager I’ve worked with – I’m still scared of him now.
“He was intimidating, menacing, you listened to every word and respected him – he had everything. He knew his football, he was ahead of his time massively.
“I’ve worked with some of the best managers around, (Harry) Redknapp, (Gianfranco) Zola, (Alan) Pardew, and Chris was ahead of his time, his stuff would stand the test of time now. We had such an exciting team and we built on it and went forward every year. 1995 was always special to me because it was my first promotion, an amazing time.
“With Ray, he was infectious, his passion came across.
“I always remember him coming in after a fantastic year with Jan Sorenson, he was a fantastic coach.
“When Ray came in, his first chat with us was one by one in the summer. I bowled in with some flip flops, my shades on, a beard and holding my mobile phone – and his first words were ‘there’ll be no mobile phones allowed and everyone will be clean shaven’.
“I didn’t think we’d get on, but what we went on to do was special.
“That first promotion was my best ever – we were favourites for the drop that year, it was incredible.
“Me and Ray at times, as big characters, said our opinion if we had one and clashed at times, but the respect I have for him is immense.
“It was a tough one when he left the club, it was the chairman’s toughest ever decision.
“Football is a funny game, whether it was right or wrong, who knows.
“All I know is that for as long as he was there, it was an amazing part of my career and something I look back on with fantastic magic memories.”
After 11 years with the club, Walker eventually left in 2004.
It was at the end of a season where Walsall were relegated from Division One, first under Colin Lee and then Paul Merson – a timing that Walker still regrets.
“That was my toughest decision,” he said. “I try not to have regrets in football, but one of them would be us getting relegated and leaving then.
“It would have made it a tiny bit easier if we had stayed in the league.
“I wanted to keep us in the division before I went, but after going down it was even harder and walking away at that time was my biggest regret.
“I was just turning 30 and it was then or never really.”
Despite that, the fans have always held Walker in high esteem.
After moving to West Ham and then a spell at Tottenham Hotspur, Walker was facing potential retirement and a move into coaching.
But again, his beloved Walsall came calling and in 2010 he returned to the club – going on to help them survive League One relegation by a single point.
“I was training with some of the best players in the world, Bale, Modric and had everything I wanted,” he said. “Harry (Redknapp) offered me to stay there and go down the coaching route, but at that time I wasn’t quite ready.
“I couldn’t sustain a job in the first team at that level, but I was getting no game time and missing training.
“I delayed going out on loan or going somewhere else and then Martin O’Connor called me asking to come back. There was no other club I wanted to finish at.
“The money was never an issue, it was a pure footballing decision to come and help the club that I loved.
“I try never to celebrate just staying up, but that was an incredible season to stay up by one point.
“We were cut adrift by January time, so to come back from that was amazing.
“We were celebrating and I was sat having a whiskey with Mick Kearns and he asked me if I wanted to stay for one more year – ‘yeah go on then’ I said.”
In the end, Walker stayed until February 2013 and earned himself the record appearances for Walsall in the process.
As much as the fans love him, the feeling is mutual and to this day those fond memories serve him well – particularly during lockdown.
“If you put an emoji on my time at Walsall, it would be the one with the love hearts over the eyes,” he added. “Nothing but fond memories, a special bond – the memories come flooding back while we’re in lockdown as people keep sending me amazing videos and pictures of my career.
“I still remember my first game, Gillingham at home, we won 1-0 and I got taken off with five minutes to go after diving at someone’s feet.
“There was something special with the fans and from that moment they really took to me, it’s amazing.
“I never thought of the record appearances when I first came back, but after that season I was told about it if I kept playing – it was just a bonus for me.
“I’m extremely proud of it and my time at the club.”