Walker's Toughest Challenge

West Ham United¹s new signing from Walsall, goalkeeper James Walker, who hails from Sutton-in-Ashfield and started his football life under the stewardship of Neil Warnock at Notts County, has just celebrated 10 years and 401(2) League appearances in the Saddler's goal.

To say he has been a Saddlers hero is an understatement. For Walker, who was given his League chance in August 1993 by then manager Kenny Hibbitt, who had signed him on a free from Notts County, has proved to be a pillar of consistency for the club.

Jimmy played in 31 consecutive League games in that first season having taken over the goalkeeper¹s jersey from Gayle and kept a clean sheet in a 1-0 home win over Gillingham on Saturday, October 9, 1993. Indeed he shut out the opposition in his opening three appearances finishing the season with nine clean sheets in all.

Those were the days when Wayne Evans, Stuart Watkiss, Dean Smith, Charlie Ntamark ­ who hailed from Paddington - Kevin McDonald who played 40 League games for Liverpool, Dean Peer and Kyle Lightbourne, who at least was from Bermuda, were the star attractions. The team finished 10th in the Endsleigh Insurance League Division Three in this Jimmy's inaugural season.

As it happens, Walker has been Walsall's insurance at the back ever since but there have been some changes at the Bescot since those days as Jimmy reveals.

He says: ³For the first seven years I was there, I even washed my own kit. When it was really muddy I would stand in the shower in my gear just to clean off some of the mud. It would save me getting a telling off from my wife for clogging up the washing machine.²

Yet Jimmy has no regrets and says: "I have really enjoyed my career at Walsall. I have played with some great characters in my time and have many happy memories.

"There have been times when I have been out of contract and might have moved on, maybe become a third choice 'keeper at a higher level and tried to make my way up. But I was always happy at Walsall where I was playing games week in week out. Now I can't wait to join up with my new team-mates for pre-season training."

Walker has seen it all, of course, from battling to get out of Division Three to Play-Off final success for promotion to Division One in 2000-01 as well as striving to stave off relegation. Now he faces his toughest challenge battling Stephen Bywater for the goalkeeper's jersey as the Hammers make a determined bid to achieve automatic promotion next season. At least Jimmy won¹t have to wash his own kit.