My Twitter timeline flashed up some news yesterday that wouldn’t have had too much significance for too many in the football world – namely that Walsall manager Dean Smith has been given a new 2 ½ year deal to manage the Saddlers after a highly pleasing start to their League 1 campaign. The season before, Smith had worked brilliantly to help Walsall beat the drop despite the usual restrictive budget that managers in that part of the Midlands have always had to deal with.
And that was what got me thinking wistful thoughts about my time following Walsall around the country as a cub reporter for Capital Gold in the late 90’s and early 00’s – arguably the most successful in the club’s history.
(It’s at times like this that sites like Soccerbase don’t half help with reminiscing)
I’d been at BRMB/Capital Gold for about a year doing the Flying Eye travel stuff, and had also started work as PA announcer at Blues, which as you can imagine was pretty significant to me, even though it was unpaid work – didn’t care about that.
Anyway, the Sport department at BRMB was its own little entity within the confines of Aston Road North. Tom Ross was the Head of Sport, and had a chief commentator, Ian Crocker (now at Sky), plus a young Mike Taylor (now at WM) and several other regular reporters who were sent hither and thither to cover either Blues, Villa, West Brom, Wolves or Walsall, as all 5 clubs had deals with the station for either full commentary rights or reporting rights including off-air commentary.
Tom delegated who went where, naturally, and there was a huge whiteboard in the Sport department divided into 14 sections covering a 2 week period where upcoming fixtures were listed and Tom and his producer Guy wrote the initials of which reporter was going where next to the game selected.
One Thursday I was in the office doing something insignificant (I imagine) when I walked past the famed whiteboard to see the initials ‘ID’ next to Walsall v Chesterfield that weekend. It took about 30 seconds for the cogs in my brain to get whirring and work out that there weren’t any reporters that I knew of with those initials. Tom was in his office, so I knocked and went in to ask if my hunch was correct.
“Yep, it’s you – grab your bag from Phil in engineering Friday night. Dead easy equipment to set up – I want full off air commentary from you, which will be taped so I can listen back to it. Keep giving out the score and paint the picture – which way are they kicking, where’s the ball, how long’s gone, if there’s a corner which 2 stands is it being taken from, who’s in possession, all of that, ok? And don’t give me stats – if I want stats, I’ll buy a book. And Ray Graydon will give you the team at 5 to 2. Right, cheers…” And he turned back to his desk, having bamboozled me for 30 seconds.
So that was that – I was to report on a Division 2 fixture (as it was known then prior to rebranding) between 2 teams I professed to knowing precious little about. The next day after getting back from work at the airport, I went into full on Statto mode - precisely what Tom didn’t really want but I needed to know who the players were, especially those in the Red & Black of Walsall.
Appearance records, goals, bookings, shirt numbers, what they had for tea on Tuesdays…I left no stone unturned in my quest for knowledge, and 10 sheets of A4 later, I allowed myself a cuppa, happy in the thought that I knew how many times Jimmy Walker had cleared from hands this season and how many efforts Andy Rammell had put on target from left-wing corners. Ok, I may be overstating it, but my head was swimming in factoids by teatime when I went in to collect my reporter bag from Phil the engineer. Now if I was confused before seeing Phil…
“Ok, now, now - this is the bag you’ll be needing. It’s got your Glensound unit here. So, what I’m saying to you is, you plug this in, with the plug here you see, and that’s what you broadcast through, but what I’m saying to you is, you need to plug the ISDN lead into the unit first, you see and then connect that to the box at the stadium before you connect the Glensound with the power supply, that’s very important, ok? Then turn it on at the back here and what I’m saying is never turn it to battery power, always use the EXT side, but you never know, power might be down there in which case use the BATT side, but batteries only last 2 or 3 hours so hopefully there’s no need. Now, both the green and red lights on the console need to be lit in order to broadcast, so what I’m saying to you is that if there’s a red light and no green, you can hear us but we can’t hear you. Now of course before all of that, we will dial in to you so you answer us when you hearing it beeping by pressing the Answer button once and once only, do you see? Now this lead here connects your Marantz recorder to the console, so you send the post match audio down the Tape line. Now what I’m saying to you is, you see, this Marantz is a bit temperamental and you need to hold it a certain way in order to obtain maximum quality……………”
This went on for a further 15 minutes and by the time I was loading the kit into the boot of my car, I probably had just about everything I’d been told by Phil totally arse about face and would therefore doubtless plug the wrong thing into the wrong port at the Bescot and cause a power outage across half of the Black Country in the process.
Saturday morning came and the drive to Bescot - a Stadium familiar to most weary travellers regardless of their interest in football or otherwise. The ground sits right next to the elevated section of the M6 as it nears the M5 just north of Brum. When a new 2-tier stand was built at the far end of the stadium about 10 years ago, those at the very back of the stand could see onto the motorway, and used to moo enthusiastically when a Wiseman Dairies truck went past with its distinctive ‘cow hide’ markings. At first, I’m sure the Walsall players thought it was random abuse being sent in their direction rather than an homage to semi-skimmed.
My overnight flapping & fretting over my equipment set up was nipped in the bud pretty sharpish as a friendly fellow from Independent Local Radio who’d come to report on Chesterfield and use Capital Gold’s spare ISDN point was happy to take me through the wiring up procedures jargon-free. (Whoever you are, thank you – you were just ‘mate’ on the day I think. Isn’t that terrible, that we substitute ‘mate’ for a name when we can’t place someone and hope we get away with it?)
So, with 2 hours until kick off, I could instead flap about getting the team news I was meant to get from Ray Graydon, the Walsall manager before the show began at 2pm. Exclusive team news was vitally important to Tom as it set the tone for the show being first with everything; team news, goals, major incidents, post-match reaction etc. So I knew I had to get the relevant information and be ready to broadcast it pronto.
But where was Ray Graydon? I mean, I knew what the bloke looked like, but I doubt he’d be too ingratiating with a Brian May lookalike in a bobble hat whom he’d never met before who wanted to know his team even before the referee did.
I wandered down into the tunnel area of the stadium and encountered Mick Halsall, the Walsall coach. I am forever indebted to Mick as he immediately took pity on this waif & stray looking utterly wide-eyed and panicked in front of him and took me to the manager’s office, where Ray Graydon was sat calmly in his chair watching a live game on his telly.
“This young man works for Tom – wants to know the team, gaffer” Mick announced as Ray turned to face us both (bear in mind that I was 30 years old, so ‘young man’ was a breath-taking compliment)
“Does he now?” replied Ray in his soft West Country accent. He had sharp angular features and gave the impression that he could be aggressive when required, and that initial response almost made the world fall out of my bottom as it was delivered totally deadpan, with no expression.
“Well, whaddaya think Mick?” he went on as he rose from his seat, “Shall we tell him or make him and his silly haircut sweat under that little bobble hat there?” This was torture. Ray came right up to me face to face…then pulled on my bobble hat affectionately and whispered “Unchanged…and I’ll know who to blame if it gets out ahead of time”, before winking at me and putting his hand out to show me to the door.
I was all over the place by now as I retook my place in the press box – started making notes and writing down the team formation with my left hand obscuring what I was writing as though I was doing a Forth Form spelling test, such was my determination to keep my information a secret from my colleagues. I dreaded to think what fate would befall me if I let anything slip.
Thankfully, 2pm rolled around and I was safe to announce the unchanged team as part of the programme’s introduction. By this time in my career, I was getting comfortable as a broadcaster in general, but understood that sports broadcasting required a particular style of delivery and that’s the road I went down without resorting to cliché.
Intro successfully negotiated, it was then a question of getting the Chesterfield line-up from others in the know and I could prepare for kick off.
The players emerged from the tunnel, but not before Swifty, the Walsall mascot dressed as the swift from the club crest, who always raced from the tunnel to the goalmouth on the left and did his best Klinsmann dive right in front of the home fans – his head came off on one occasion as I recall.
And then panic set in again – as I prepared to start my off-air commentary, I noticed Chesterfield’s strip – dark blue with a very light pinstripe in it and, to top it off, maroon numbers on the back of their shirts. They were utterly indecipherable, even from the relatively close vantage point you had from the main stand. Brilliant
Those opening minutes of commentary are no doubt long since consigned to the Capital Gold incinerator, but they would probably only have been preserved for Dennis Norden’s Laughter File if they’d survived. Not the greatest, but by the end of it all, it was a 1-1 draw, Andy Rammell had scored his 17th of the season for the hosts, and the post match radio press conference scrum with Ray was more good education for yours truly in the art of sports journalism.
I was hooked…and perhaps more importantly for my career, I was required the following Saturday at Notts County by Tom to watch the Saddlers again. And so began my treks up and down the land charting the steady rise of Walsall under firstly Ray Graydon and then Colin Lee.
I travelled to Blundell Park and witnessed a mini-tornado during Walsall/Grimsby, which set the electronic scoreboard that sat above the 35 travelling Saddlers fans teetering dangerously close to collapse – all this whilst marvelling at how a ground with such a tinderbox of a main stand could pass health & safety regulations.
I remember the braziers out on the pitch as the ground staff used the most antiquated method I shall ever see in thawing out a frozen playing surface to try and get a local derby with Wolves on – there was an away win at Molineux (Rammell & Barras the scorers) that had Walsall fans in 7th heaven in their 1st season I watched in the 2nd tier. And then subsequently most of that Wolves team seemed to turn up at the Bescot as Colin Lee took up the reins going into the 2000’s.
Lee was another West Country lad, who was an interviewer’s dream. No need to worry about filling up time if you were short of manager audio for a Saturday preview show – just ask Colin one question…and off he went, waxing lyrical and going off on tangents in a way that would leave Eddie Izzard utterly perplexed, before eventually returning to the subject in hand for his rambling conclusion. Such diversionary dialogue made pre and post-match press conferences a tad long-winded at Walsall, especially as one local football writer (who shall remain nameless) took it upon himself to ask questions almost as long and involved as the subsequent answer from Lee. I swear journos used to bring a good book with them to pressers after a while.
Those pressers took place in the pressroom underneath the main stand at Bescot, where the height of culinary sophistication came in the form of Jammie Dodgers to go with the stewed tea and incredibly strong smelling coffee. No 6 course buffets on offer here. There was the faint lingering smell of Pledge one day when Colin, irritated by the squeak on the door that led back to the players’ tunnel, ordered his press officer to fetch furniture polish to spray on the offending hinge, before returning to his multi-threaded answer to my question without missing a beat
During that time, Walsall reached the heady heights of the top 6 in what we now call the Championship, after a Boxing Day win at Cardiff in 2003 – Colin Lee could seemingly do no wrong, until Plymouth came a calling and, despite turning the job offer down, he’d fallen into owner Jeff Bonser’s trap and thus, the decline as Lee was forced to depart without Bonser’s wishes even though he’d said no to Home Park. Walsall were battered 1-6 at home by Coventry and Bonser entrusted Paul Merson with arresting said decline. Bad move. Walsall played much worse (I remember a 5-0 embarrassment at Norwich in the Spring of 2004 that practically sealed their fate) and the glory days of punching above their weight was gone for Walsall.
And as I type they’ve still to return, but Smith’s steady hand on the tiller gives them as good a chance as they’ve ever had – Jimmy Walker still remains on the playing staff from those heady days (having gone to West Ham and buggered his knee up in the interim period) and he asked me to speak at his testimonial dinner in 2003, on the condition that, as part of my speech, I did a monologue in my Colin Lee voice.
“He won’t be there will he Wacka?” I asked nervously
“The Dark Lord? (That was the players’ pet name for Lee, given his penchant for black suit, black shirt black tie combos) At my dinner? Give over Dants!” roared Jimmy in response.
On the night, I was on the top table next to Jim and there was a table nearby containing Wacka’s teammates Dean Keates, Darren Wrack and Fitzroy Simpson amongst others. When it came my turn to, well, do my turn, the Trevor Francis & Graham Taylor impressions went down as well as always with the punters, but upon launching into my Colin Lee skit, the players at the nearby table were practically having kittens, they were laughing so hard. Plus, they were occasionally pointing behind them to a table way way in the back…at which I suddenly discovered, Colin was sat looking decidedly unmoved.
Still it brought the house down, made Wacka’s night and Colin, to his credit, didn’t knock me out the next time I turned up to interview him…he just gave me slightly more curt answers…answers that therefore lasted 2 minutes a time rather than the regulation 3 and a half ;o)
Walsall have a special little alcove in my footballing heart and nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see them back up in the Championship and getting 10,000 crowds back to what is now called the Banks’s Stadium. It’s a great club, with fantastic people working for them everywhere you look. They’ve never overspent, never done anything other than cut their cloth accordingly and never had ideas above their station. They don’t owe anybody anything – but I owe them loads for my introduction into this crazy world of evening and weekend work that is football broadcasting.
The Blues are always my team, but Walsall I think are my guilty pleasure.