Where are they now?
The Saddlers glorious season of 2000-01 saw them promoted to the Championship after play-off triumph against Reading at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. During the course of that season, heroes were made.
The names of Walker, Aranalde, Tilson, Keates, Goodman, Byfield, Matias, and Leitao will all bring back wonderful memories for fans of the club.
There were other people involved in that campaign though. The likes of Bryan Small, Barry Horne, Dion Scott, Karl Hawley, Alfie Carter and Ian Gaunt may not have played many games that season but they all contributed to our success.
Although Ian Gaunt didn’t play any league games, he will be a familiar name to any of the 3,346 fans that attended an LDV Vans Trophy game against Wigan on 30 January 2001. This is because the then 19 year-old centre-half, making his debut, scored a last-minute headed winner to take us through to the next round, with a 2-1 victory.
Ian wasn’t even meant to make his debut that night, but heavy traffic on the M6 meant many players were delayed. Ian takes up the rest of the story: “Mick Halsall was looking after the team that night and he had difficulty working out which players were in the dressing room, and who needed to be promoted from the bench,” he recalls. “The whole experience was great. I played really well that day and obviously scoring the winner in the last minute was brilliant.”
When Ian, who is from Bromsgrove, was 16 he joined Walsall on an YTS contract and signed professional terms when he turned 18. During the successful 2000-01 season, he played regularly for the reserves at left-back. The reason why his chances with the first-team were limited was because we had arguably our greatest ever squad of players and three experienced centre-halves at the club: Ian Roper, Andy Tilson and Tony Barras.
“Being a centre-half I learned a lot from the likes of Andy Tilson, who was really good to me,” reminisced Ian. “The best players during my time were probably Andy Rammell and Jimmy Walker.”
And what of living legend Sir Ray Graydon? How did he get on with the disciplinarian manager who got us promoted twice to League One? “He made sure you knew who was boss, which is not a bad thing. I cleaned his boots so the pressure was always on me! Unfortunately for me he was great at bringing in centre-halves who did brilliantly in the last few years of their careers.”
After Ian’s glorious debut, he went from hero to zero, getting sent off in the next round of the LDV Vans Trophy against Stoke for a professional foul, as we capitulated 4-0. “The Stoke game was a different level to the previous week against Wigan. Aside from the sending off I didn’t play well so was really disappointed with that more than anything.”
That was the beginning of the end for Ian’s career at Walsall. Whilst the players and fans celebrated the team’s success together at Cardiff, Ian watched the game from the corporate box. “I saw a few of the players afterwards. It was obviously a great result for the club but, ironically, probably had some bearing on me getting released.”
How did he feel when he was told his contract wasn’t going to be renewed?
“I was gutted. I thought I’d done more than enough, but the coaching staff has to make difficult decisions based on many factors, which I completely understand.”
After a very short spell at local non-league side, Moor Green, Ian left the professional game for good and took a sports science degree at Loughborough University.
Ian, who is now 31, tells us more about what happened next: “After graduating I worked at Loughborough University for three years before in 2008 getting a job at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. I am now fortunate enough to be the assistant director of sport at the university and live and work in a beautiful part of the UK.”
Last year, Ian got married and the best man was fellow ex-Walsall trainee, David Hunt, who is currently a physio at Birmingham City. Ian and his wife, Heather, are expecting their first child together in August this year.
We wish Ian and his family the best of luck for the future.
Once a Saddler, always a Saddler!