Former manager takes award on 20th Anniversary of promotion...THE END of Season Awards saw former manager, Chris Nicholl, recognised with the Lifetime Achievement Award, 20 years after he guided the club to what is regarded as a seminal promotion in our recent history.
It was following a battling goalless draw at Bury on a balmy Thursday evening in Lancashire in our final game of the season that The Saddlers secured promotion as we finally escaped the clutches of The Football League’s basement division.
It was a season that had seen an early change at the helm as Nicholl came in to replace Kenny Hibbitt and as well as our solid form in the League, we also enjoyed a couple of Cup adventures, running both West Ham United and Leeds United close in the League Cup and FA Cup respectively.
There were heroes all over the pitch. Kyle Lightbourne and Kevin Wilson took the plaudits for the goals as they bagged half-a-century between them, whilst Martin O’Connor proved to be a real leader in midfield, Stuart Ryder overcame injury to show the kind of form that thrust him into England Under-21 recognition, wide-man, Scott Houghton, was a regular supplier of crosses and the experience of the likes of Colin Gibson and Charlie Palmer was invaluable.
“There was a nice blend of youth and experience in the team,” recalled Gibson. “We had plenty of characters around the place back then and it was just a real pleasure to be part of it at the end of my career.
“To help the club achieve promotion was special and I have some fond memories of the time.
“There was some serious celebrating once promotion was achieved. As I recall, it went on for weeks and weeks!”
Kevin Wilson added: “Coming to Walsall proved to be a great move for me. We were a team right from the very top with everyone playing their part in our success.
“I was particularly pleased for the manager who had set his stall out for promotion from day one and we did it for him.”
Meanwhile, emerging goalkeeper, James Walker, came in for the injured Trevor Wood for that final game of the season and played his part with a clean sheet in what was a high pressure encounter against a Shakers’ side who were also going for promotion.
“I found out the day before the game that I was playing,” he recalled. “It wasn’t until we arrived at the ground that I started to get pangs of nervous excitement.
“We knew that Bury would line up with three giants up front, so imagine my horror when Chris Marsh sliced a clearance high in the air above my goal early on!
“I managed to get a decent punch on it before finding myself sprawled in the back of my goal, but in that instant any nerves disappeared and I went on to thoroughly enjoy the game.
“Those final five minutes of the game seemed to take an eternity, though, and Bury had a late free-kick in a dangerous position. Their lad struck the ball a treat, but I was overflowing with confidence and not only did I manage to make a save, but I also held onto the ball.
“That was one of my favourite saves of all-time.”
“The euphoria at the end was fantastic,” continued Martin O’Connor. “I had so many family and friends at the game and to see their smiling faces at the final whistle made it all worthwhile.
“There was a real spirit and determination around the place. I still talk about that season fondly even now when I meet up with former team-mates from that time.
“Looking back, that season really gave the club a kick-start and was the catalyst for the most successful period in Walsall’s history.”
The final word goes to manager, Chris Nicholl.
“I was delighted because I had a record of winning promotion at the end of my first season with every club. I was pleased for the players and the people at the club who worked so hard behind-the-scenes.
“As a defender, that goalless draw at Bury which secured promotion fulfilled all of my ambitions as we went to a difficult place in a high-pressure environment and remained solid and compact to frustrate our hosts and get the result we needed.
“My one aim that season was promotion, so whilst it was nice to have a couple of Cup adventures thrown in, getting out of Division Three was all that mattered.
“I will never forget the euphoria at the final whistle as we celebrated with our large travelling support.
“We had some good players; Kyle Lightbourne and Kevin Wilson were regulars on the scoresheet, Martin O’Connor was the driving force in the middle of the park and then there were the experienced heads, people like Colin Gibson, whose influence on the younger lads was vital.
“I am so proud of the achievement of that promotion season.”
We congratulate Chris Nicholl on winning the Lifetime Achievement Award and indeed all of the other winners at our End of Season Awards Ceremony.