Walsall heroes relive play-off win

Walsall’s play-off heroes from 2001 were reunited as the Banks’s Stadium played host to a special evening looking back on the landmark win.

Walsall FC, and the team that won at the Millenium Stadium 20 years go had a reunion. L-R: Tom Bennett, Jorge Leitao, Darren Byfield, Pedro Matias, Tony Barras, Jimmy Walker, Ian Roper, Darrewn Wrack, Carl Emberson, Don Goodman, Ray Graydon, Dean Keates, Mick Halsall.
Walsall FC, and the team that won at the Millenium Stadium 20 years go had a reunion. L-R: Tom Bennett, Jorge Leitao, Darren Byfield, Pedro Matias, Tony Barras, Jimmy Walker, Ian Roper, Darrewn Wrack, Carl Emberson, Don Goodman, Ray Graydon, Dean Keates, Mick Halsall.

Boss Ray Graydon and his stars that beat Reading 3-2 after extra-time in Cardiff got back together to relive that iconic triumph – and were joined by hundreds of fans on a night full of laughter.

The Road to Millennium event on Friday proved a big hit with the former players and supporters alike.

Legendary striker Jorge Leitao and midfield great Pedro Matias travelled over from Portugal and Spain respectively, and were both blown away by the reception they got.

“It’s unbelievable. I left in 2006 and now it’s 2021, so to have the reception me and the other lads from 20 years ago had, it’s unbelievable,” said Leitao, whose name was heartily sung in the packed-out Stadium Suite.

“I feel really speechless, so thank you to all the supporters. It gives you goosebumps. It’s an amazing feeling.

“The game is one I’ll remember forever. We were the underdogs in that game.

“Reading had a big team, so playing and winning the way we did, it’s a feeling that’s really hard to explain.

“The feeling when the referee blew the final whistle, it’s like you’re in heaven. It was really special.”

Jorge Leitao on stage

Leitao started in a topsy-turvy affair at the Millennium Stadium.

Jamie Cureton put the Royals ahead, with Don Goodman replying for Walsall.

Extra-time was then needed and Martin Butler put Reading back in front, but an own goal from Tony Rougier was quickly followed by Darren Byfield’s strike as the Saddlers completed a remarkable victory.

Looking back on the game and sharing his thoughts on returning to the Banks’s, Matias said: “That was the most important game of my life. To see my team-mates and manager 20 years apart, it’s like a gift for me.

“My years at Walsall were the best in my career. I wish I came earlier!

“It was 20 years ago, but the people still love that team. I never had the chance to say ‘thank you’ to the fans, so it’s very nice to be back.”

As well as Leitao and Matias, Jimmy Walker, Dean Keates, Tom Bennett, Goodman and Byfield were also among the returning group.

Ray Graydon relives the play-off triumph

Graydon was taken aback by the support as he said: “It was such a lovely night.

“I didn’t expect so many people. I thought there would be around 30, but it was more like 300 or 400.

“It’s probably the best trip I’ve had here in a long time.

“I’ve been back before and we’ve had a few good nights, but this was different.

“Everybody was really pleased. The fans here are so special and, hopefully, the club can go forward for them.”

The Road to Millennium event proved to be a big hit

The evening was put together by former Walsall player Wayne Thomas’ Ace Events.

He added: “In terms of an atmosphere and feel-good factor, I haven’t experienced that before.

“I’ve done 25 events here over five years, and that was the busiest night we’ve ever had. And in terms of an atmosphere and emotion, it was definitely the best.

“To get 14 of the squad and management back in one room, it was a special occasion for them and the fans.

“I don’t think it could’ve gone much better, really. It was a privilege to be able to put the event on.”

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