Youth team product enjoying his new career...THERE has been a lot of talk about The Saddlers’ production line of young talent so far this season.
No fewer than six Academy graduates were in our matchday squad last weekend, but just over a decade ago there was another local lad who was making his mark in the first-team having been with the club since childhood.
Gary Birch was a talented front-man who was a regular on the scoresheet for both the youth and reserve teams before making the step up under the guidance of Ray Graydon and then Colin Lee.
He appeared a total of 77 times for The Saddlers before moving on to serve the likes of Kidderminster Harriers, Lincoln City and AFC Telford United.
“I have some brilliant memories of my time at Walsall,” said the 32 year-old. “I came through under Ray Graydon and then managed to establish myself in the team when Colin Lee was in charge.
“It was at a time when the club was at its peak in what is now The Championship and I was playing alongside players of the calibre of Paul Merson and Vinny Samways.
“There were some big games, which will live long in the memory, but I particularly remember the home game against Nottingham Forest, which we won 4-1, and I scored with a header from a Paul Merson cross.
“The fans were always brilliant with me; we had some highs and lows, but they were good days.
“I feel fortunate to have had an opportunity that millions would have loved to have had.
“This club has always been known for giving youth its chance and it’s still very much the case today. A good youth structure is important for a club like Walsall and it’s something they do really well.”
Upon quitting the full-time game, Birch initially worked as a mortgage adviser whilst playing part-time locally, but went into grounds maintenance and having got his qualifications, spent two years working at a golf course before setting up his own business five years ago.
“I’m lucky that I have found another career that I really enjoy,” he added. “Being outdoors and active is what I am used to and having two football clubs and a rugby club on my books, there is still that buzz of a matchday and working towards a Saturday afternoon.
"To still be involved in the game is a bonus.
“This is a profession where you never stop learning and it’s something that I can see me doing for the rest of my career.”
Birch still keeps a close eye on The Saddlers’ progress.
“I always look out for Walsall’s result," he said without hesitation. "The club played a big part of my life as I was here from the age of 12 up until I was 23.
“It’s a well-run, close-knit club and there are still people here behind-the-scenes that I remember from my time as a player. They work extremely hard and, like the fans, deserve success.”