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. Fulhamâ€™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 Â£12m on upgrading the Craven Cottage squad, Graydon has spent Â£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 Â£1m for Terry Cooke last week, while Readingâ€™s expenditure in Tommy Burnsâ€™ fist year was nudging Â£3m.
What makes Walsallâ€™s exalted status all the more astonishing is the fact that this is the 51-year-old Bristolianâ€™s first managerial post. Moreover, he inherited a team who had just finished 19th and were bracketed with Colchester, Lincoln and Macclesfield as the bookmakersâ€™ 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 Queenâ€™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 didnâ€™t have money to spend,” Graydon said. “I knew the position and accepted what the chairman told me: that heâ€™d make cash available if he had it. In fact, Iâ€™ve made him Â£270,000 because Iâ€™ve sold two at Â£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 Taylorâ€™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 Graydonâ€™s tactical acumen. “Weâ€™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 weâ€™ve stuck to fairly rigidly. Iâ€™ve seen some teams go through four formations in one match. Iâ€™m sure if you asked them to explain their job they couldnâ€™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 – whereâ€™s my position?”
I donâ€™t like standing on the sidelines, shouting at my team or lambasting the referee, so Iâ€™ve got the senior players, like Neil Pointon, Adrian Viveash and Andy Rammell, to assume responsibility. Theyâ€™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 Iâ€™d get some crosses for him and guaranteed heâ€™d score more. Heâ€™s got 20 now.”
Graydonâ€™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 playerâ€™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 Walsallâ€™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 Graydonâ€™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, whoâ€™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 Walsallâ€™s rise shows that coaching and management skills can compete, to a certain extent with chequebook management. “Weâ€™re proving that at this club,” Graydon said. “Iâ€™d like the opportunity to spend some money, but if we get into the First Division Iâ€™ll do the best I can with what Iâ€™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 canâ€™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.