One of our most successful ever managers...Tonight’s Evening with Ray Graydon may be sold out, but there will be an opportunity to meet ‘Sir Ray’ at the Oldham game tomorrow!
The former Aston Villa and Bristol Rovers winger guided the Saddlers to an against-the-odds promotion in 1998/99 and led us back into Division One via the play-offs in 2000/01.
Ray and his family will be guests of honour in the Savoy Lounge at 1.00pm tomorrow, while at 2.20pm, he will be in the Stadium Suite to meet supporters.
He will also be coming on the pitch at half-time along with his grandchildren, who are mascots for the day.
Make sure you are here at the Banks' tomorrow to welcome back one of our most successful ever managers!
Ahead of his return, we caught up with Ray to discuss his four years with the club...
Q: So Ray, what are your memories of your first promotion with Walsall in 1998/99, when the club were tipped for relegation?
RG: We weren’t just tipped to go down, I think we were the major favourites! Everyone agreed that we were going to go down which made it very rewarding at the end when we got promoted. The whole time I was with Walsall was a magical time and certainly in that first season where we had a very small squad. I remember we went up to Scotland in pre-season I only had half a squad. I had Paul Taylor alongside me and he was a big help finding players for me to have a look at. I think the lads grew and grew through the season and the main thing was that we were very difficult to beat – there were a lot of 1-0s that season.
Q: How did you find the challenge the following season in the division above?
RG: To have a club like Walsall in Division One is not a very easy thing to do. It’s a small club that is excellently run. The owner Jeff Bonser kept the club alive and I agreed with his thinking – I was with Jeff all the way. I have a vivid memory of the last game at Ipswich Town when we were relegated. I remember walking over to the Walsall fans and they were absolutely fantastic. There was a tear in my eye and at that moment I promised myself that I would do everything in my power to get us promoted again.
Q: And you managed to reach the play-off final in 2000/01. What do you remember about the build-up to that day?
RG: We were going to play at the Millennium Stadium against what many perceived to be a bigger club in Reading, who had a so-called bigger manager in Alan Pardew. But I was never overawed. I spent a lot of time gaining experience and I had been in quite a few finals and promotion spots before, so I wanted the players to be very much at ease on the pitch. I wanted the final to be backed up with everything that we could do to help.
Q: It went all the way to extra-time in the end. How were your nerves holding up?
RG: We were trailing in the final part of it and it looked as if it was perhaps not going to be our day. But we kept going and got there in the end. We believed in what we were doing and the players believed in themselves and they got things done in the end.
Q: How did you find the players you worked with that season?
RG: We changed players and changed them quite a bit without spending a lot of money. Of all the players I managed at Walsall, I would be very surprised if they didn’t say they were at their fittest with me. You can’t have every player as good as George Best, but I made sure we would never be beaten on fitness. I made it very, very difficult at times but the players responded really well. I spoke to all the players individually when I arrived at Walsall and they all wanted the same things as me which was fantastic. I promised all of them that I would improve them, spend time with each of them and do my utmost to make things better and better. They were a fantastic group and I was a lucky man to have them.
Q: And finally, how excited are you about coming back to the club?
RG: I’m looking forward to coming up. The board and the owner were brilliant but the best thing of all was the people of Walsall. Even if it wasn’t pleasant, people would always come up to you and tell you the truth. Even now I still get letters from the fans and that means a lot.