'So glad I came back but now's right time to leave'
By Walsall Advertiser | Thursday, February 14, 2013, 09:20
"I DON'T have to watch what I say now! I'm free!" Jimmy Walker joked this week as he pondered life away from Walsall for the second time in his football career.
Jimmy Walker received a commemorative shirt when he passed the 500-appearance mark for the Saddlers in his second spell with the club.
Above: Jimmy Walker with fellow Saddlers legend Colin Harrison, whose appearance record he surpassed. Below: Picking up some coaching tips from Saddlers goalkeeping coach Mick Kearns.
Scandal-mongers can look away though – getting a bad word out of him about Walsall is as impossible a task as the one faced by those strikers striving to put the ball past him during his decade-plus in goal for the Saddlers.
Whether it's the fans, the club, the staff, the players or manager Dean Smith – who he had the odd disagreement with this season – Walker has only compliments to dish out.
His departure this time, of course, is a world removed from the first time he left Bescot – then he was moving to one of the biggest clubs in the country in West Ham.
Then, his immediate future was secure. This time it's anything but – and he admits leaving the club for a second time was among the hardest decisions he's ever had to make.
Walker said: "This has been one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make. This club is very close to my heart and will always be part of me.
"I've not retired, even though a lot of people seem to think I have. If something comes up somewhere I would look at it. I still think I've got a little bit to offer.
"But on the other hand part of the reason for re-signing with Walsall in the summer was that I couldn't see myself ending up anywhere else.
"And part me of thinks I still can't.
"It was a little bit disappointing the way things finished up and it was probably the right time for both of us – me and the club – for me to leave.
"I didn't want it to peter out for the rest of the season and it looked like it was going to do that.
"When you've influenced somewhere so positively for such a long time, to then not be able to have that influence, I found it really hard to deal with that.
"There were injuries, which are the hardest thing to deal with when you get older – I had a calf injury this season and it seemed to take forever for me to get over.
"It didn't quite work out how I would have wanted this year but memories like breaking the appearance record and the promotions we achieved will far outweigh any little negatives like that.
"I know that I will miss playing and I'm already missing the changing room banter! I've been at football clubs for the last 23 years of my life and that's a long time."
Whether he finds another club or not this season, the 39-year-old is keen to get back into coaching as soon as possible.
He added: "I've loved doing the coaching. It's something I've picked up subconsciously over the last few years and I've thought a lot about how to get the best out of keepers.
"I worked with Tony Parkes when I was first starting out and along the way I've worked with the likes of Heurelho Gomes and Carlo Cudicini at Spurs – and I've taken a bit from every keeper I've worked with.
"I've got a strong base of how I think you should get things across to other goalies and I've really enjoyed the coaching work this season."
Since making his debut as a fresh-faced 20-year-old in 1993, Walker has enjoyed an unparalleled rapport with those on the terraces at Bescot Stadium.
And he admitted one of his regrets was that he did not have the chance to properly say goodbye to them, though he has no doubt he will pay return visits.
Walker added: "The fans have always been great with me and I'd like to thank every single one of them for the great times they have given me.
"They seemed to take to me from the start and I think they get behind every player if they see that you're having a go.
"I think that's been shown again this season – they stuck with the boys through that bad run we had and now the team has turned it around.
"I remember when we were getting crowds of 10,000-plus in the Championship and the place was buzzing.
"Obviously it's a tougher economic climate now but they still stick with the team through thick and thin."
And while his first spell included historic promotions and memorable cup runs, Walker believes his biggest achievement came at the other end of the spectrum.
He went against the old adage of 'never go back' when he returned to a Walsall side in dire straits in the autumn of 2010, under the management of Chris Hutchings.
And Walker was one of the star performers, turning back the clock with some fantastic displays as the Saddlers – led by Hutchings' successor Smith – miraculously escaped the drop, despite looking doomed at the turn of the year.
Walker recalled: "When I went back, people said I was mad, that you should never go back.
"We were 11 points adrift of safety at one point and there wasn't a great atmosphere around the place.
"I just wanted to do as much as I could and it was such a big thing for the club to stay up that year.
"We had so much ground to make up and surviving that season really helped the club to push on.
"If we had gone down that year, you don't know what could have happened as there would have been wage cuts and the league below is so hard to get out of.
"So that was up there as one of my biggest achievements of my career – going back there and managing to play a part in helping us to stay up."
'Managing to play a part' was a modest way of putting it but Walker does not need to shout about his achievements over almost a decade-and-a-half for the Saddlers. They speak for themselves.