ROM’S OLD PAL IS ON HIS SAIDO

The Football League Paper - - CHAMPIONSHIP - By Chris Dunlavy

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.

Ad­just­ment

“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.”

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Images

RO­MAINE CON­QUEROR: Wal­sall’s Ro­maine Sawyers in ac­tion against Tran­mere in the semi-fi­nal and, inset, West Brom goalscorer Saido Ber­ahino

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