1995 – 2001 : The Ascension of the Saddlers And the Unforgettable Journey…

The initial stumbling start marked the conclusion of Kenny Hibbitt’s era in September 1994, leading to the appointment of Chris Nicholl. Nicholl injected fresh vigor into the team, evidenced by commendable cup performances against West Ham (a 2-1 victory in the League Cup second-round first leg) and Leeds (a 1-1 draw in the FA Cup). The league campaign culminated in promotion, securing the required point on a warm Thursday evening in Bury, clinching a second-place finish.

The 1995/96 season carried high expectations, but a period of adverse weather conditions coincided with a dip in results. The club teetered perilously above relegation but ultimately secured an 11th-place finish.

The subsequent season, 1996/97, commenced poorly with only one win in the initial eight games. Despite a mid-season resurgence, a streak of poor results dashed hopes of promotion, settling for a mid-table position.

Nicholl, having taken the club as far as he deemed possible, handed the managerial baton to Jan Sorensen, the first foreign manager in Walsall’s history. Despite a lackluster league performance, Sorensen guided the team through three captivating cup runs.

Notable triumphs included victories against Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United in the League Cup and a resounding 7-0 win over Macclesfield in the FA Cup. The Auto Windscreens Shield journey ended narrowly in the area final stage against Bournemouth, despite a thrilling 4-3 aggregate score.

League struggles persisted, resulting in a 19th-place finish and Sorensen’s dismissal at the season’s end. Ray Graydon assumed the managerial role promptly, implementing a stringent code of conduct and reshaping the squad.

Graydon’s impact was immediate, with Walsall achieving promotion as runners-up in his inaugural season despite being early favorites for relegation. Defying expectations, the team held off challenges from Manchester City and Preston, fostering a remarkable team spirit led by players like Andy Rammell and Darren Wrack.

Entering the new millennium in the first division, Walsall faced formidable opponents such as local rivals Wolves, West Brom, Birmingham, Nottingham Forest, and Blackburn. Despite earning the “Pride of the Midlands” accolade after notable victories, the team experienced relegation back to Division Two after a valiant fight until the final day of the season.

Unlike previous relegations, optimism surrounded the 2000/01 season. The club made an explosive start, maintaining a top-four position throughout the campaign. Finishing fourth, Walsall secured a playoff spot against Stoke, ultimately triumphing 4-2 in the second leg at Bescot and earning a Millennium Stadium showdown against Reading.

In a memorable encounter, Walsall secured a thrilling 3-2 comeback win in extra time, with goals from Don Goodman, an own goal by Tony Rougier, and Darren Byfield. Under Ray Graydon’s guidance, Walsall swiftly returned to the second tier, marking a triumphant comeback.

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