Archive for April, 1999

Independent profile of Sir Ray

roger6 @ 6:34 pm Wednesday 28 April 1999

A former Aston Villa winger is materminding an intriguing and unlikely challenge for promotion to the First Division. By Phil Shaw

Vinnie Jones gave it both barrels. With the funds Kevin Keegan was given, sniped the bruiser-turned-actor, even his old granny could have taken Fulham up. If the Second Division table stays as it is now, with Walsall in the second automatic promotion position, no one will be able to say the same about Ray Graydon.

Whether Mohamed Al Fayed has heard of Graydon or even of Walsall, is not known. Fulham’s multi-millionaire owner may, however, be interested to learn that engaging a high-profile figurehead and throwing money at the transfer market is not the only way to win football matches.

Whereas the part-time England coach has lavished £12m on upgrading the Craven Cottage squad, Graydon has spent £30,000 on one player, Richard Green from Gillingham, since arriving at Bescot Stadium last summer. Yet Walsall need “only” eight points from five games, starting at fourth-placed Preston tonight, to follow Fulham up.

Graydon, careful not to tempt fate, will say only that the modestly supported Midlands outfit have “a good chance of making the play-offs”. Even that would represent a remarkable success, especially when one considers the financial muscle of some of their rivals. Apart from Fulham, Manchester City paid £1m for Terry Cooke last week, while Reading’s expenditure in Tommy Burns’ fist year was nudging £3m.

What makes Walsall’s exalted status all the more astonishing is the fact that this is the 51-year-old Bristolian’s first managerial post. Moreover, he inherited a team who had just finished 19th and were bracketed with Colchester, Lincoln and Macclesfield as the bookmakers’ favourite to go down.

Exactly who is this Graydon one can almost hear Mr Al Fayed asking, and how has he done it? A winger with Bristol Rovers, Aston Villa and Coventry he later coached Oxford United, Southampton and Queen’s Park Rangers. Between jobs last spring, he helped John Rudge steer Port Vale from seemingly certain relegation to safety.

Graydon was in no hurry to join the sack race, having always placed job satisfaction above ego and ambition. But he knew about Walsall from his friendship with Chris Nicholl, a former manager, and the set-up appealed to him.

The chairman, Jeff Bonser, is a fan of five decades who runs the club on tight business lines which leave the manager under no illusions. “Lots of people would come in here and kick the desk because they didn’t have money to spend,” Graydon said. “I knew the position and accepted what the chairman told me: that he’d make cash available if he had it. In fact, I’ve made him £270,000 because I’ve sold two at £150,000 each”

The other aspect that attracted him was the Continental-style division of duties between team manager and general manager. Paul Taylor handles the contracts and agents, and has bought sundry Croats, Argentinians and Ice-landers to Bescot. Graydon reasoned that Taylor’s presence would leave him free to concentrate on coaching, and so it has proved.

Twelve away wins, the joint best total in the four divisions, offer proof of Graydon’s tactical acumen. “We’re not unlike Manchester United. If you watch them carefully, they do group and then hit you on the break. We can be under intense pressure and break out to score.

“People advised me to look at my squad and choose what system suited them. I decided against that and went for 4-4-2, which we’ve stuck to fairly rigidly. I’ve seen some teams go through four formations in one match. I’m sure if you asked them to explain their job they couldn’t do it.

“All our players are clear about their roles – when to cover in front of the back four; when to support the front two, etc. Even in six-a-side training games, if they lose the ball they have to regain their shape. The thinking we drum into them is: “Lost it – where’s my position?”

I don’t like standing on the sidelines, shouting at my team or lambasting the referee, so I’ve got the senior players, like Neil Pointon, Adrian Viveash and Andy Rammell, to assume responsibility. They’ve shown great leadership. Rammell scored twice for Southend last season, and he came here asking; “What can I do to be better?” I said I’d get some crosses for him and guaranteed he’d score more. He’s got 20 now.”

Graydon’s eye for a player has been as important as his ability to organise and motivate. Another of his seven free-transfer recruits, the 12-goal midfielder Darren Wrack, has been selected in the player’s union poll for the divisional team of the season. “He was tossed aside by Grimsby but it would take a lot of money for us to part now. The honour reflects on the lads around him, because they all pull together.”

Discipline is another major plank in Walsall’s strategy. Earrings and designer stubble are banned as part of a dress code; mobile phones are not allowed in the dressing room; there are strict rules about time keeping, and foul language and foul play are frowned upon. Draconian as it sounds, the players have “responded superbly”.

Then there is Graydon’s waist disposal programme. “Fitness is absolutely vital, so we assessed their body-fat and gave them a target weight. If they go over it they have to pay a fine. Chris Marsh, who’s been here a long time and always looked a bit heavy, is possibly having the best season of his life, partly because he is lighter.”

Whisper it in Harrods boardroom, but Walsall’s rise shows that coaching and management skills can compete, to a certain extent with chequebook management. “We’re proving that at this club,” Graydon said. “I’d like the opportunity to spend some money, but if we get into the First Division I’ll do the best I can with what I’ve got.”

It is as close as anyone at Walsall comes to discussing promotion in public. Such talk, if not quite on the banned list, is discouraged, though as Graydon admitted: “We can’t help seeing where we are.” The run-in, which includes an opportunity to pit his wits against the England coach at Bescot, will tell us whether seeing is believing.

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Lincoln 0 Walsall 1

roger6 @ 6:35 pm Sunday 25 April 1999

WALSALL strengthened their grip on the Second Division’s automatic promotion spot with this victory and by virtue of Manchester City’s unexpected defeat by Wycombe.

The results mean the Midlands club need only two points from three games to move up into the First Division. This time last season these teams were also involved in relegation and promotion conflicts – only the roles were reversed.

While Lincoln were seeking promotion to the Second Division – which they achieved – Walsall were scrambling to stay in it. They succeeded but by only two places.

However, a remarkable improvement under new manager Ray Graydon brought the Midlands club into this match ahead of Manchester City and Preston, the division’s most renowned clubs.

Despite being 21 places higher in the table, Walsall spent the first half-hour on the back foot, although the only serious danger Lincoln offered was a fifth-minute header into the net by Gavin Gordon ruled offside.

Despite Lincoln’s greater possession, the highlight of the session was played out in their own goalmouth. Walsall’s Darren Wrack drove in a shot that cannoned off Gordon and seemed certain to loop over John Vaughan until the goalkeeper jumped and stretched to turn the ball over the bar.

There were even fewer shooting opportunities in the second half with the dominant factor being the sodden pitch which the players clearly mistrusted.

It may have had something to do with the deciding goal in the 71st minute. Lincoln’s Steve Holmes failed to cut out Andy Rammell’s pass, which sent Wrack clear and he rounded Vaughan before slipping the ball into the empty net.

So close now

roger6 @ 6:35 pm Saturday 17 April 1999

VERDICT: Walsall took a massive step towards securing promotion at Bescot this afternoon courtesy of the 2-0 success over relegation-threatened Macclesfield. With promotion rivals Preston slipping to a lunchtime defeat at home to Blackpool, Saddlers took full advantage thanks to second half goals from strike duo Rob Steiner and Andy Rammell . The home side had looked edgy before the interval but those nerves were eased within 10 minutes of the restart when on-loan Steiner fired home his second goal since joining the club on transfer deadline day. Steiner then turned provider 5 minutes later when he created the opportunity for Rammell to fire home his 20th goal of the season. From that moment on Walsall were in complete control and only the linesman’s flag denied Darren Wrack a third goal.

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Saddlers started the game with news of promotion rivals Preston’s shock 2-1 home defeat against Blackpool filtering through but it was the visitors who posed an early threat inside 2 minutes.

A long ball from Hitchen drifted into the Walsall area and Askey was given half a yard to turn and play towards his goal but his intended lob lacked height was easily held by Walker.

The home side’s first venture forward ended when Rammell was bundled over by Ingram wide on the right. Keates took the resulting free kick but his left footed cross was well claimed by Price.

Henry then started Walsall moving forward again with a sweeping pass out wide to Brissett, he controlled before delivering a cross towards Rammell but Ingram came to his sides rescue with a timely headed clearance.

Macclesfield had started the game the more lively and put the Walsall goal under sustained threat courtesy of three corners in quick succession with Walker doing well to fist the last of those away under pressure from Matias.

The relegation threatened visitors were enjoying the majority of possession and had Walsall back-pedalling again with Viveash and then Keates clearing in quick succession following some neat build up play between Wood and Matias.

Walsall came close to falling behind on 18 minutes when Walker was forced into a full length save to push aside a curling free kick from Durkan.

There was a further alarm 2 minutes later when a deep cross from Ingram found Askey unmarked in the area but his header flew straight at Walker.

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Walsall appeared to be taken by surprise by the urgency with which Macclesfield had started but managed to break forward to good effect when Brissett released Wrack down the inside right channel with the winger’s cross forcing Price into his first serious save of the afternoon, diving low to palm the ball clear.

The Silkmen continued to dominate proceedings, and a surging run from Matias that saw round Marsh easily caused more alarm with his deep cross being headed clear by Pointon.

Walsall won their first corner of the game on 26 minutes after Brissett’s cross had been blocked by Hitchen, but Wrack’s flag kick was easily claimed by the unchallenged Price.

Rammell registered Saddler’s first noteworthy effort of the game after 29 minutes when he neatly controlled Henry’s headed pass into the area before unleashing a right foot volley that flew inches wide of Price’s right hand post.

Saddlers at last appeared to be settling with Steiner the next to threaten hooking wide from just inside the area after Macclesfield had failed to clear Pointon’s long throw.

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The pressure on the visiting goal continued and Walsall were desperately unlucky not to have taken the lead on 33 minutes. Brissett created the opening showing good pace and control to get the better of Hitchen down the left before delivering a teasing cross that was met powerfully by Rammell only for his header to smack against the inside of the post and rebound to safety.

After surviving that near miss Macclesfield responded immediately and should have taken the lead when Askey took advantage of some slack marking to meet Durkan’s cross only to send a free header just wide of the far post.

The open nature of the game continued when some tenacious play from Henry finally earned him the opportunity to cross from out wide on the right with Rammell sending a first time right foot volley over the bar.

Brissett’s pace was causing the visitors plenty of problems down the left and Hitchen became the first player to be cautioned when he pulled the winger back as he threatened to break clear.

There was another nervous moment for the home side five minutes before the interval when Durkan’s corner was allowed to bounce across the 6 yard area towards Ingram who hooked a left foot shot just passed the far post.

Brown then joined team-mate Hitchen in the referee’s book following a crude late challenge on Wrack.

Brissett was looking the man most likely to unlock the visitors’ defence and another mazy run from the winger ended with Ingram heading clear from close to his own goal line.

Half time: Walsall 0 Macclesfield 0

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Walsall started the second half with more urgency which Steiner threatening to break clear after exchanging passes with Rammell, but Hitchen was on hand to race across from the right back position and produce a superb last ditch challenge to clear the danger.

But STEINER was not going to be denied on 54 minutes when he eased the tension by blasting Walsall in front.

The move started with Henry knocking a high ball to Rammell and Steiner muscled in onto his strike partners flick on to hold off a tame challenge and blast home from close range passed Price.

Within 2 minutes Saddlers almost doubled their advantage when a neat build up ended with Marsh racing onto a Wrack pass but Price was alert to the danger and raced quickly from his line to block the full-back’s shot.

The goal had clearly lifted Walsall and Steiner in particular and the on-loan Bradford striker played the lead role in Walsall adding a second on 69 minutes.

Steiner collected the ball midway inside the Macclesfield half before setting off on a powerful run that took him passed two visiting defenders before showing great awareness to pull the ball back to RAMMELL who fired home with the aid of a slight deflection.

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Walsall’s front two of Rammell and Steiner were now causing plenty of problems for the visiting defence and only a smart covering header from Tinson back to his keeper Price defied Steiner as another run on goal followed a flick on from Rammell.

Saddlers were given a warning that the victory was far from secure when Brown brought a diving save from Walker with a long range effort.

Play was held up for a couple of minutes for Viveash to receive treatment but thankfully the Saddlers defender was able to continue.

Walker was forced to race from his line to hack the ball to safety on 71 minutes as Landon threatened to reach Viveash’s under strength back-header.

There was another alarm for the home side when an unfortunate slip from Roper gave Sorvel a brief sight of goal but the midfielder was adjudged to have handled as he attempted to control with Walsall being awarded a free kick on the edge of their own area.

The home side were soon back on the attack when a flighted pass from Viveash set Keates away down the left. He then attempted to find Steiner inside the area, but the striker was unable to control with twice grabbing the loose ball.

Walsall had the ball in the net again 5 minutes from time when Wrack raced in behind a square defence to plant a right foot shot passed Price only to see the effort ruled out for off-side.

Walker then preserved his side’s 2 goal advantage with a superb one-handed save to keep out Brown’s powerful header.

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