Ray Graydon, manager of the team who were favourites to be tailed back in the Second Division as far as the customary queue on the M6 motorway under which stands their 9,000-capacity stadium, has astoun- ded his own supporters and opposing teams by accompanying Fulham on their journey to the First Division. Kevin Keegan has spent pounds 12m doing so; Graydon has outlayed pounds 35,000 and even recouped pounds 300,000 from the sale of their two best players, Roger Boli and Jeff Peron.
In fact, Graydon is more evangelist than sergeant major, this softly spoken 50-year-old Bristolian who won't countenance swearing, even on the training pitch, the wearing of jeans or earrings, the use of mobile phones and has conducted a purge of those who are booked or sent off. Today, he takes his squad off to Cyprus for a week to celebrate their automatic promotion. "They can get up to what they want, as long as they don't disturb the people next door," he says, "but I insist they travel in collar and tie. They looked at me to see if I meant it when I told them, but we've been professional all season. We're not going to change now."
Walsall's professionals soon discovered there is no such thing as player- power in the Graydon vocabulary. If he is considered unorthodox, it should be remembered that his beliefs hark back to the days when he was first a player, and beyond, a time when being sent off was regarded with shame rather than as an opportunity to berate the officials. When he recalls the day he was sent off as an Aston Villa winger for retaliating against Henry Richard "Harry" Cripps, the notorious Millwall defender who made Vinnie Jones look like Dale Winton, it is almost as though he is repenting for the sins of the world, such is his remorse.
"I was rarely booked, and was sent off once, stupidly. I was outside- right and Harry Cripps was left-back, and he kicked me up hill and down dale. Finally, I received the ball and he kicked me again. I snapped. I got up and kicked him back. It was a stupid thing to do because he was built like a brick outhouse and I hurt my foot on him." (It is now the late Harry, although he could have been described as such when he was alive.)
Graydon continued: "I went to sit down next to my manager, Vic Crowe, and he said, 'What're you doing here? You've let your team-mates down.' Vic lived near me so I knocked on his door on the way home and apologised. I often think to myself, how many players would do that now? Anyway, Vic sorted me completely. What happened was that I got suspended and when I came back he put me on the bench for nine or ten games and he wouldn't pick me. I learnt something that day."
Walsall, a club who once reached the glorious heights of sixth in the old Division Two 100 years ago, were every supporter in Birmingham's "other club". They will never have chic, but you can't fault their cheek for daring to compete with more illustrious names. Suddenly, the Saddlers don't have them in stitches any more. Less than a year after succeeding Jan Sorensen, Graydon has surprised even himself with a team of several free transfers, including Andy Rammell and Darren Wrack. "Obviously, he was doing something wrong at Grimsby for them to let him go," he says of the latter. "But he's flourished, he's scored me 12 goals, and assisted in 10 others." He now values Wrack at pounds 1m.
Graydon, who works closely with Paul Taylor, Walsall's general manager, is punctilious in his preparation. His players are weighed regularly and if found to be carrying extra poundage are fined. He also keeps regular reports on players, who are marked in every game.
Whatever the cynics might say, his methods have succeeded. "I changed things, quite a few things, when I arrived. I asked my young players how many afternoons they trained. They said, 'One'. I said, 'One a week?' and they said, 'No, once this year.' I said, 'That will change. You'll be in every afternoon, except when I tell you, to learn your trade.'"
On his desk, there is a large pile of replies to letters of congratulations from all over the country. "People say things like, 'We admire the way you try to play football and enjoying the way you've set about it'," he says. "They talk about my 'old-fashioned values', as they like to call it. It's almost as though I've made a stand against declining standards in the world. I just call it common sense and the way I was brought up."
Is there just the faint possibility, you have to ask, that behind his back there is some sniggering, in the way that pupils regard an eccentric teacher? There is a fleeting smile from the man who scored Villa's winner against Norwich City in the 1975 League Cup final. "I think in every club, players will speak about their manager in a derogative manner, but I'd be genuinely surprised if they didn't have some respect for me. We've had the odd couple of up and downers, but they generally knuckle down to work, and I wouldn't get that without respect. I don't ask any of them to like me."
His attempts to reduce cautions against his players might have produced mutinous mutterings in some quarters, but the Graydon gospel appears to have been heeded. "It is an emotional game and you can't ever stop that," he says. "But you can improve things by continually working at it. A lot of managers and coaches don't. They just say the referees are at fault and I have never once said that. I can't afford to have players suspended.
"It's not a question of me fighting them every minute of the day, or being overbearing. I've just asked them to be leaders, not followers. Just because other people get upset with referees, why should we? Why don't we set our own trends? It's helped our football because they stay focused and are ready to react quicker, but I'd still have done it if we'd been bottom of the league."
Graydon regards sendings off and bookings as a stain on his own character and on occasion he has threatened the ultimate sanction against offenders, even if by doing so he spites himself. Jason Brissett has been sent off three times. "He's a winger and gets kicked, but he has not learned about keeping it defused. I crucified him in front of the players. I said, 'Unless things improve, you will have to leave this club. I can't work with you. Either you go - or I go.' We went to Lincoln the next game and I left him out. He should have been playing. He was distraught, but I said, 'I'm sorry, that's how it is. You're ruining everything we're trying to do'. Fortunately, we won. I played him the next game, but I said, 'You step out of line again and it's curtains.'"
Graydon, whose playing career also took him to Bristol Rovers, Oxford and Washington Diplomats, had previously been content with his role as coach. "I made clear what I wanted when I started. I think they thought I was joking when I said I didn't want any swearing on the training pitch. It's improved, but if they are noisy they are quickly knocked down or made to do some runs round the field." They are also fined, with the culprits having included himself. "Why should women who may be passing have to listen my players swearing?" he says.
Graydon would not claim to be a David Copperfield, so how does he explain Walsall's remarkable rise? "It's all about teamwork and togetherness," he says. "I'm so strong about everybody working together. We've had some strange moments, too. Before we went out for our Christmas party, the players, as normal, asked for the following day off. I said, 'No, we're going to train.' They came in, but instead I took them to a hospice up the road and we sang carols. We had a wonderful day. We've also gone away to play cricket and had a pint or two afterwards and gone paint-balling."
On Tuesday, Kevin Keegan's Fulham formed a guard of honour as the Walsall team ran out before their match. Graydon thought it was a wonderful gesture. "It was unbelievable coming from Kevin, I was terribly flattered on behalf of my team." Yet, he maintains that Keegan didn't have it so easy as the pounds 12m outlay might have suggested. "I've seen people who have had a lot of money and wasted it. His problems have been completely different from mine. He had to spend wisely and handle those players.
"Kevin was very complimentary and I wished him well. I said, 'You've got the hopes of the nation on your shoulders now; I've just got a few Walsall fans to please.'"