TOM HOPES IT’S THIRD TIME LUCKY
TOM Bradshaw, who fired Walsall to Wembley for the first time in their 127-year history, is hoping his third visit to the national stadium brings smiles not just to the faces of Saddlers fans, but his frustrated family, too.
Goals from Anthony Forde and Bradshaw in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy area final first leg with Preston at the start of January were followed up by a goalless draw this week to end one of the longest waits in football.
The Bradshaw family will be heading down to north-west London en masse to witness Walsall’s historic day, with Tom’s dad having booked a 20-seater mini-bus.
Much of his family’s allegiances, though, lie with Shrewsbury Town and Bradshaw was in the stands when they lost League Two play-off finals to both Bristol Rovers and Gillingham within three years.
And, living in fear of incurring the wrath of his family for a third time, Bradshaw has vowed to ensure Walsall triumph.
“I think we will fill Wembley just with my family alone,” smiled the 22-year-old.
“I’ve never played at Wembley, but it has always been an ambition of mine since I started. I’ve been twice to watch Shrewsbury at Wembley, but they lost both times. It was a great experience, but if we lose they might not let me back in the house!
“It’s been a great week. Building up to the game on Tuesday was great, the fans were buzzing. It was perhaps not the most memorable game, but it was a huge moment for us and you saw how important it was to the fans with the celebrations afterwards.”
Attention turns back to League One today, with Walsall set to host Gillingham at Banks’s Stadium – the first of 11 matches until they finally grace Wembley.
Where they will be in the table come March 22 is impossible to predict, with Dean Smith’s side four points off the play-off places but only six clear of the relegation zone ahead of the weekend’s action.
But Bradshaw, with 15 goals this term, insists his team are looking up rather than over their shoulders.
“The JPT has been great for us and the fans, but we need to start building some consistency in the league and looking towards the play-offs,” he added.
“We’ve got the players to do it. I can’t see the JPT final distracting us. We’ve had this build-up and talk about ‘will they get to Wembley?’ for the past couple of rounds.
“It’s a huge day, but the league is just as important. It’s where we play the majority of our football throughout the season, of course, and there are eight or nine weeks between now and the final.
“We’re at home to Gillingham so we’ve got to be looking to take all three points.We got a good result at Colchester in our last league game, and we’ve got to look at putting a run together, particularly at home.”
The Gills are just one place and two points behind Walsall going into this evening’s contest and look set to welcome back in-form striker John Marquis, who was ineligible for their Johnstone’s Paint Trophy area final defeat to Bristol City.
Midfielders Amine Linganzi and Aaron Morris both remain sidelined, though, with hamstring injuries, giving Gillingham’s fourman caretaker-management think-tank something to chew on.
Since Peter Taylor left Priestfield Stadium on New Year’s Eve, Gillingham have taken six points from four league games.
But Andy Hessenthaler, one quarter of the caretaker contingent, has told his team not to forget their priority is to stay in the division.
“It is still on and we are still in a fight.We have played an extra game to other teams, too,” he said.
“We have got to start looking up rather than down, but we need to be cautious.We have had two nice wins but things can change and we know just how quickly.
“The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy has been a distraction because we have a bit of momentum in the league. Walsall, for me, is more exciting because of that momentum.
“We just have to go into every game with the same work ethic and desire to be better than the opposition. If we keep doing that and getting the best out of each individual, then we will be fine.”
PARTY TIME: Jubilant Walsall crack open the bubbly after reaching Wembley