Walsall FC

This week, James Baxendale was announced as taking on a coaching role at Worksop Town to go alongside continuing to play for the club. The attacking midfield man’s start at senior level came at a then-Championship side, in Doncaster Rovers, with a league debut against Sam Allardyce’s West Ham United.

A decade on, he is still only 28, and it wasn’t so many seasons ago that he was featuring regularly in League One for a Walsall side managed by present-day Aston Villa boss Dean Smith. It is fair to say he has seen his share of football’s inner-workings over time, both positive and not so, and he has plenty to share with those around him, and the enthusiasm to match.

He is currently looking forward with considerable optimism at what may lie ahead for a Worksop team he feels are primed for promotion in the not too distant future. He looks back here on a playing path that for a Sheffield Wednesday fan, has interestingly interlinked with the club’s two biggest rivals, as well as taking in several levels of the game. Don’t forget Orange County as well…

 

You’ve just been confirmed as taking on the coaching role at Worksop alongside playing. Has it been a club so far that fits in well with your overall routine and circumstances?

It’s been good. Obviously I’ve followed the gaffer from Pontefract, Craig Parry, and I’m living in Nottingham, so when he got the job at Worksop, it was perfect for me. I’m working in education recruitment at the minute for a company called Teacher Active, so that’s my Monday-to-Friday job, and the commute to Worksop takes about half an hour. The club’s quality; a brand-new 4G surface, just built a brand-new stand behind the goal. It’s a club that’s going in the right direction, so I probably couldn’t have put a more ideal situation together.

Obviously it’s ultimately been ripped away from you but what did you feel you had going at Worksop this season? You were doing well, did it feel like the right pieces were starting to come together?

Yeah, I’m confident enough to say that if our league carried on, we’d have won it. We were in the (Northern Premier League) West part last year with Ponte, and coming over this year, I didn’t really think too much of a couple of teams who were fancied, and I think we were too strong for most teams. We’d probably got our proper squad together by the last two games and we were really clicking, and I think we’d have gone on and been too strong for most in that league.

Tell me about where your (Sheffield) Wednesday influence comes from, does it run through the family?

My old man’s a Wednesdayite. Until about nine years old, I actually had a season ticket at Nottingham Forest, about ten minutes from where I’ve ended up living now. So me and my granddad used to go and watch Forest, but as I’ve got older and know a bit better, I’ve been going and watching Wednesday. We haven’t had much to shout about since I was born, but I’ve got my old man to blame for being a Wednesdayite. Once it’s in you, it’s in you, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Having been in the pro game yourself, you can’t really have that proper experience of supporting another team while you’re playing. Obviously in non-league, it’s still just as full on, with Saturday/Tuesday fixtures. Have you been able to support Wednesday a bit more in recent seasons, though?

Yeah, whenever we didn’t have a game, I’d go. I’d say I’ve gone and watched them five or six times a season over the course of the years, if I’ve had a game called off or I can nip there on a Wednesday or Tuesday night. First and foremost, I’m a football fan, and I still love going down the boozer and talking about football. So I try and watch live football whenever I can, and if it was Wednesday, I’d go anywhere, to be fair.

You had the experience of playing in a win against Sheffield United for Walsall. Being a Wednesdayite, is that in your thoughts, or are you just thinking about doing the job for Walsall, the same as any other game?

No, it was in the forefront of my thoughts. There is a genuine dislike of them, and we played a game on Bank Holiday weekend – it was one of the best games I’ve played in my career actually – against them at the Bescot, and motivation was probably at its peak. I remember a Tuesday night playing at the Lane and I crossed one in to Craig Westcarr – I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated a goal like it. You’re still a fan, first and foremost, and when we were playing them, it was one of the first games I looked for, not because they were a big club at the level, but because I really wanted to beat them. They actually showed a bit of interest in me at the end of that season, but I wouldn’t have even dreamed of moving.

So who was Sheff United manager at the time, with there being a few different ones in those seasons?

It was when David Weir went in. They took Febian Brandy from us. We played them on that Bank Holiday and we tore them to pieces, the two of us, so they showed some interest. It just wasn’t something I would have dreamed of entertaining. At the time, I was playing well for Walsall, I was very young still and I saw us as a better side. Anyone else other than them, it would have interested me more. It wasn’t just the fact I’m a Wednesdayite, because it’s your career at the end of the day, but as I say, the fan in me meant it didn’t take much persuasion to stay.

At Walsall, one player you also played with who I’m a big fan of was (current West Brom midfielder) Romaine Sawyers. Anyone who’s played alongside him speaks extremely highly of him. How did you find playing with him?

Yeah, there was one season where Walsall got to the play-offs, and he was our best attacker, best defender. He’s so relaxed, he hardly looks like he’s breaking a sweat, and intelligence-wise, he’s right up there with anyone I’ve played with. I watch him even now in the Premier League and I think he does really well. I think he’s so under-appreciated, because he doesn’t fly about, he’s not charging here, there and everywhere. If he got ten goals a season, he’d probably have got a Premier League move sooner, but his appreciation of a pass and of the game is right up there.

After Sheffield United, the next worst for a Wednesday fan is Leeds! You were a young player there for many years, what kind of football upbringing and environment was it? Was there anyone who helped you in particular?

I always give Leeds fans a bit of stick on Twitter, because I think they’ve got an elevated opinion of the club, but I haven’t got one bad word to say about the club when I was there. I was there for ten years, got looked after, and the lady who looked after us, (former player and current co-commentator) Lucy Ward, Lucy’s unbelievable. You almost felt like you were a member of the family, the way she looked after us. She was one all the way through who you genuinely felt she’s got your best interests at heart, because she’s seen it a million times, going through that system. I was there from eight to 18 and got released before the end of my scholarship, and she sort of braces you for ‘what are you gonna do afterwards? Are you working the very hardest you can and making sure you’re the best person you can be?’ So as much as being a Wednesdayite and having a bit of a dislike for Leeds United, the actual football club really were supportive and I haven’t got a bad word to say about them. I wasn’t anywhere near ready for their first team when I was 18, and I could see it coming a mile off, but I think that’s credit to the sort of person Lucy wanted us to be really.

You were at Doncaster when Dean Saunders came in (as manager) partway through the season, and there’s ‘names’ like El Hadji Diouf, (Pascal) Chimbonda coming in. The club got relegated, but it sounds from people who were there like it was a bit of a mess in the end, and a real split in the type of personalities. What kind of place was it to be around?

Well I’d gone from playing youth-team football and a few games in the reserves. I went on trial there two weeks before the season before that, did well and Sean O’Driscoll said ‘I’m gonna give you a first-year pro, get yourself fit over the summer, come in and do your worst’ basically. So I went into pre-season, flying into every tackle in training like it’s my last, running like it’s my last ever session, and ended up doing really, really well. Played in some pre-season games, and they haven’t got a lot of money, Donny, especially for the Championship, so for the first few games of that season, I made a couple of appearances off the bench. I loved every single second of it, because I’m thinking ‘on Friday, I was in the pub with the lads talking about football – on the Saturday I’m there against West Ham and I’m playing’. You’ve never seen a change in a club like it, after that six games when (O’Driscoll) got sacked; the environment I absolutely loved, I really started to dislike it. You look for some sort of guidance for a young player but it just turned into every man for himself. When you’re not playing every week and you’re a first-year pro, you like to think there’s some sort of plan for you. A player I’ve got loads of respect for, James Chambers, he’d do extra training with me, so he’d take me out and keep me fit, keep me sharp, and essentially teach what it was to be a proper pro really. He was going through a tough time himself but he was like ‘this is what I’m doing, I’ve played in the Premiership, this is what you should be doing’, and dragging me along with him.

You had your spell in California, with Orange County (in the USL). Firstly, were you wanting to play in Scandinavia before that?

I always wanted to play abroad, it was always a bit of a burning desire that I had, and Scandinavia was the one I really wanted to go and do. The amount of emails I sent, CVs I sent, contacts I tried to gain in Scandinavia was incredible really. Never really got a nibble from anybody, which obviously disappointed me, but it was something I always wanted to do. After my time at Mansfield, which I didn’t particularly enjoy, the American opportunity came up. It’s one where you think ‘you never know, I could go over there and be an MLS player down the line’. 25 years old, do you wanna come and live in LA? Of course I do. So the idea was to go over there, make a new life for myself, but once again, wasn’t meant to be really.

The way training is, the way players react to results, the communication style, was it a real change of dynamic to what you’d been used to?

Yeah, complete change. Over here, you go and watch Sunday league teams, they’re rowing with each other if they concede a soft goal, or people not trying. Over there, I think there’s 16 teams in the league; you’ve only got to be in the top eight to be in the post-season. Then if you win the trophy, it’s a trophy, it’s not promotion or relegation. I used to say my piece if we were conceding soft goals, but for them, it was a completely different outlook on it. It was all ‘the progression’ and this sort of stuff, whereas I wanna win the game! There was a number of different things as well: on Saturday, you’re playing in Texas at 40 degrees, then you’re flying back to LA to play at 5 o’clock on a Tuesday and it’s 26 degrees, then you’re going to Salt Lake and it’s 4000 feet above sea level! The experience, though, was quality. Some of the places I’ve been and things I’ve seen with it, I would do it again.

Living there, on the face of it, a bit of a dream scenario. What was the time outside playing and travelling like?

It was a case of ‘well, I’m here now’, and I love travelling anyway so I tried to do it all, and I did it all! We trained in the morning, and pretty much every day that I could get out, I was going seeing things. Some of the best things in the world you could name, I could travel to within an hour. I lapped up as much of it as I possibly could, because who gets given these opportunities twice? With the football, I really, really tried to make it work and make it last, keep myself as fit as I possibly could, and fit into their style, because the lifestyle is unreal. I didn’t see a cloud for six months! So it was incredible.                                                                                                                                                          

In your entire time in the game up to now, which has been the happiest spell?

100 per cent it was that first season at Walsall. We had Will Grigg up top, I’d play behind him in the ten, Jamie Paterson on one wing, Febian Brandy on the other. That was probably the best team, and we were all close, and I think everybody in the team had a point to prove, so nobody was above each other. It was a proper team, we’d go out together, socialise, and everybody wanted to kick on to that next level really. It worked to everybody’s benefit, and for me as a second-year pro, I didn’t even realise what was happening to me, it was just ‘this is what we do’. I wasn’t on a lot of money, just enjoying every second of it. It was like ‘Colchester away on Saturday – brilliant!’ I loved all that side of it, I thought it was absolutely brilliant.

On the flipside, what about the most difficult time?

I didn’t enjoy Mansfield. That was a strange one, I can’t say I enjoyed any of that, to be fair. Some really good people at the club, but as far as the football side, just wrong fit. I can’t even say I didn’t have a good time on the pitch, because I barely played; I think I played more in a two-month loan period than I did in the rest of my 18 months there. Just a bizarre time coming in training every day, giving it everything and then getting absolutely nothing back, and not really having any sort of relationships within the club. It was all sort of empty conversations where both parties say the right thing, and then there’s just no reward for it whatsoever at the end of it. I wasn’t particularly allowed out on loan, because I always trained well, so if I came off the bench, you know you’d get 100 per cent from me. I absolutely love football and when it’s your job but you’re not getting out on a Saturday, we’re not earning millions, is it worth living in this false world? I was essentially a fake footballer really; training Monday to Friday, sitting on the bench on a Saturday, and then I’d probably be the moodiest I’ve been in my life on a Saturday night. But you can’t do anything, because what if I go out on Saturday night, then on Tuesday I’m playing, and I’ll blame myself because I’ve had a few beers? I’ve always been disciplined and when I played professionally I very rarely drank, because I knew at some point it was gonna come to an end, so I wanted to give it everything, but it gave me almost nothing back, to be honest.

Has there been a manager that’s been most in tune with you and what gets the best out of you?

I didn’t particularly want to get close to managers, I didn’t wanna be anyone’s best mate, and I think that was potentially to my detriment. The closest I’ve had is 100 per cent the gaffer now at Worksop (Craig Parry), because I was almost at a loss with football, and his only words to me were ‘you give up time away from your family on a Saturday to come and play football, the least I can ask you to do is enjoy it, and go and do what you’re good at and play attacking football’. What else do you wanna hear really?

Sean O’Driscoll was brilliant, because he basically said ‘go and do what you do’, and he trusted me. He probably gave me my career, because he gave me my Championship debut. He was actually the one who at the back end of my time at Walsall when I’d stopped playing, he came in as interim manager. Dean (Smith) and Richard (O’Kelly) had got the job at Brentford and we were 3rd in the league, and I was sitting on the bench, travelling up and down. Sean O’Driscoll said ‘you can do this, you might sit on a bench in a promotion season, or do you wanna go out and play games?’ So he tried to give me a new lease of life really. Walsall had a really good secretary at the time, he’s still there now, Dan Mole, and he was the same. ‘Whatever it takes, James, wherever you wanna go, we’re not gonna ask for any fees, just go and look after yourself,’ so I’d say they had my best interests at heart.

Any individual opponents you’ve been directly up against who stick in your mind for the experience of playing against them?

We always did well against MK Dons, but you look at a 16/17-year-old Dele Alli, and I used to think he was an absolute Rolls-Royce. I know he’s having a tough time at the minute, but my God, what a player he was. We played Chelsea in the cup as well, and they had Falcao on the pitch; that was the only time where you’re looking around going ‘Christ, what am I doing here?!’ Rochdale always used to be a really tough game; when we played them, we used to say ‘we’ve got Brazil away today’ because they were so good. They had Jamie Allen in midfield and he was always one I thought was class. I used to like playing against them as well, Keith Hill and his assistant used to have them ratting, they were 100 mile an hour. I think we were 3-0 up once at half-time and they almost came back to 3-3, they were full of energy, and I thought ‘yeah, I wouldn’t mind playing for him’.

Have you ever had to sing when you joined a new team, and if so, which song(s) have you done?

I actually volunteered to do it once at Walsall; I did Luther Vandross. ‘Dance with My Father’ – oh it brought a few tears! We all did one and we weren’t shy. I actually sang twice; first one was ‘She’s Electric’ (Oasis) with Ben Purkiss.

We mentioned work at the beginning but what about anything else you enjoy away from football?

I love my music, so I go and watch concerts, and there’s a place called Bodega in Nottingham, so Thursday you can get a ticket for six or seven quid to watch new bands and stuff like that. So I love going watching indie music, rock. Any sort of sport fascinates me, so I’m into the All or Nothing NFL stuff on Amazon at the minute. It’s something me and the boys at Worksop, the management side, talk about, because you can take a lot from the way they approach things; they’ve got teams within teams. I look at taking inspiration from any of the top sports and the people in it, because there’s a reason why they’re at the top.

So lastly, following on from that, are you looking at coaching as something to really get immersed in longer-term?

Yeah, I wanna get immersed in it because I absolutely love football. I never said I was a ‘footballer’, because at League One level, I don’t think you’re a proper footballer, but I think I’ve had a lot of experience within the game at a certain level where I will give advice, and it would be better advice than I got given. It’s something I’m really enthusiastic about and I think I’ve got a lot to offer it. It’s pretty much been my life; if I wasn’t involved in it I’d be following Wednesday up and down the country. I’m only 28, I wanna play for another ten years yet, but if I can do both, then it’s great to get a foothold.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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