ROM’S OLD PAL IS ON HIS SAIDO
NOT many players can call on one of English football’s hottest prospects for advice before their first-ever appearance at Wembley. There again, not many can say their best mate is Saido Berahino.
Walsall midfielder Romaine Sawyers was just 11 years old when he met Berahino, a pair of wide-eyed dreamers struggling to make the grade at West Brom’s academy.
Twelve years on, Berahino, 21, is a Premier League regular on the brink of England honours while Sawyers is ploughing his own path in the Football League. But the kinship forged in those early days remains steadfast.
“Saido is probably my best friend in football,” says Sawyers, 23, who is preparing to take on League One leaders Bristol City in today’s JPT final.
“At first we’d just see each other at the club, but over time it became more. I’d go to his house, he’d come round to mine and we’d knock about. We’ve grown up together and we’re in contact daily to this day.
“We’ve spoken about the final. He plays in front of big crowds at big grounds every week so you’d be stupid not to ask advice.
“All he said to me is ‘Get on with it. Blank the crowd out. Blank the occasion out.This is football – you’ve been doing it for so many years. It’s the same sport, just with more people watching’.
“I’m intelligent enough to see that myself but I appreciate the advice and it’s good to have kind words from friends and family before a big game.”
For Sawyers, the path to stardom lay away from the Hawthorns, where he grew increasingly frustrated at stalling in the reserves before leaving to join Walsall in March 2013.
“I went on loan to Shrewsbury, to Port Vale and Walsall,” he recalls. “And every time I got back to Albion I was hungrier to get back out.
“I just couldn’t see any real progress. I’d been playing Under-21 football from the age of 16 to the age of 21. And if you get to 22 and you’re still playing Under-21 football, questions will rightly be asked. The only way you can answer them is by cutting those ties, getting out there and making it on your own.
“It’s just one of those decisions where you have to be brave and have
faith that you can go out into the world and build a career for yourself. You have to say ‘Thank you for the last 15 years but it’s time to stand alone’.”
The transition was eased not just by a previous loan spell at the Bescot but also thanks to some familiar faces.
“I’ve played with Paul Downing since I was seven, Sam Mantom since I was 12,” adds Sawyers. “We’ve been starting alongside each other for the last ten years so it was an easy changing room to walk into.
“Even so, it was a big adjustment. West Brom was all I’d known since the age of seven. When you’re a kid at a Premier League academy, you get a lot of things done for you. If you have a problem, there’s always a member of the coaching staff to go to.
“Here, I had to stand on my own two feet – to grow from a boy to a man. Some lads come from the Premier League and they get labelled as big-time. I’ve heard about it happening from friends in the game. The players at Walsall would never do that, but I had to make sure my attitude was right.”
Talking of old friends, Sawyers also had a hand in convincing Tom Bradshaw – Walsall’s top scorer with 16 goals and currently battling to overcome a hamstring strain – to join from Shrewsbury in the summer.
“I was on loan with Bradders and I did have a chat to him before he came,” says Sawyers, who has scored four goals in 40 games this term.
“He’s always been a really honest player with loads of ability. He’s maybe just needed that arm around the shoulder and a gaffer to say ‘Look, I believe in you, now go out there and show everyone else why I believe in you’.
“That’s what Dean Smith has done and I think he’s repaid him with the goals.”
Is he winning his fitness fight? “He’s winning it, yeah,” says Sawyers. “He’ll be alright. Anyone with a cup final to aim at is going to find a way to be fit.”
Today marks Walsall’s first appearance at Wembley in their 127-year history and the significance has not been lost on Sawyers – nor Saddlers boss Dean Smith, another West Brom boy who began his career at the Bescot.
“The gaffer is Walsall through and through,” says Sawyers.“And he’s let us all know what this means to him and the fans.
“He told us that in ten, 15 years’ time, when they need former players to talk about the big day, we’ll be the ones they phone.
“Even getting there has put us in the history books, but to actually win it will really set it in stone.”
ROMAINE CONQUEROR: Walsall’s Romaine Sawyers in action against Tranmere in the semi-final and, inset, West Brom goalscorer Saido Berahino