In today’s feature, we look back on the Saddlers’ Second Division play-off final victory over Reading, 16 years ago today. This match has always been close to the hearts of the loyal supporters here at the Banks’s.
In a successful 2000/01 campaign Walsall finished in fourth place, comfortably clinching a play-off place. Their eventual opponents in the play-off final, Reading, had finished third, and they overcame Wigan 2-1 on aggregate in the semi-finals. Walsall defeated local rivals Stoke City 4-2 at the Bescot after a 0-0 draw away from home.
Saddlers’ manager Ray Graydon fielded a very strong line-up in an attempt to gain promotion to the First Division, with was cult hero James Walker in goal, ex-Manchester City defender Ian Brightwell, Spanish defender Zigor Aranalde, former Stockport and York man Tony Barras, ex-Bristol Rovers centre-half Andy Tillson, diminutive playmaker Dean Keates, Real Madrid academy graduate Pedro Matias, Scottish midfielder and former Wolves player Tom Bennett, Jamaican international striker Paul Hall, hardworking forward Don Goodman and prolific Portuguese striker Jorge Leitao.
Reading opened the scoring around the 30-minute mark when Jamie Cureton’s volley crept under Walker’s body and into the net to give Reading a vital lead.
Just after the break, Goodman levelled for the Saddlers as his effort fell on target and beat the Reading goalkeeper.
Both sides had opportunities to gain the initiative, and they also had penalty appeals waved away.
The match went into extra time, and Reading regained the lead through a header from ex-Walsall striker Martin Butler, who came back to haunt the Saddlers. A triple substitution from Walsall manager Graydon was essential for the team donning the red and black strip, with the fresh legs of Darren Byfield, the late Matt Gadsby and Gabor Bukran entering the Millennium Stadium playing surface.
These changes proved key, and within 15 minutes the Saddlers were level - a bizarre headed own goal from Reading substitute Tony Rougier making the scoreline 2-2.
The two finalists both went in search of a crucial third goal that would surely seal promotion. The Saddlers found extra energy levels, and a minute after equalising, they added a third. A 20-yard shot from sub Byfield flew into the goal past Reading’s number one Phil Whitehead, securing the Saddlers a 3-2 victory, and more importantly, promotion to the First Division in front of an attendance of 50,496 supporters!
Many Saddlers look back on this day with a mixture of emotions. Joy, relief, pride. These days in football are priceless, and the memories of this match last forever in the hearts of Walsall fans, players and staff that represented our club that day.