The Boot Room’s Chris Linnell interviews Walsall and Wales international striker Tom Bradshaw. Having scored 18 league goals in 36 league appearances this season, the 23-year-old is in red hot form as his club side prepare to battle for a spot in the Sky Bet Championship.
The former Shrewsbury frontman, who signed for Walsall for an undisclosed fee two summers ago, has been in excellent form for the Midlands outfit this term, with his goals proving key to the Saddlers’ League One promotion charge – momentum that he hopes will end in promotion come the end of the season.
Currently the club’s top goal scorer in all competitions, yesterday Bradshaw scored his 19th goal of the season against Fleetwood Town, and an excellent one at that. The subsequent victory over The Cod Army, by three goals to one, has served to reduce the gap between second (Burton Albion) and third, to just three points – setting up a terrific final day of the season.
With three strikes – in Burton’s favour – proving the differential when it comes to goal difference, Walsall’s automatic promotion hopes rely on results elsewhere. However, while the play-offs appear to be the most likely route to promotion, Bradshaw remains confident that his side can reach the Championship via the automatic route – by finishing in the top two:
“Everyone at the club are focused and hoping on achieving automatic promotion. If we went up via the play-offs it would be a dream way of getting promoted, of course, but we’ve not given up hope of a top two finish just yet.”
It has been a season to remember for Jon Whitney’s men, who Bradshaw describes as a “close knit squad”. However, a crucial victory at home to Colchester United stands out to the 23-year-old as the most memorable moment of the current campaign. In this tie, the Saddlers grabbed two late goals to come from behind and beat the then-bottom-of-the-table Essex outfit.
“One moment that massively stands out is Colchester United at home,” he said, “being 1-0 down in the 89th minute, having not played well at all was disappointing, but to get the equaliser in the last minute of the 90, before Matt Preston scored another in added time, at such a crucial stage of the season, has to be the highlight so far.”
This tie in mid-March sparked a run of form in which The Saddlers have fallen to just three defeats in nine league fixtures, while dropped just two points – from a possible 15 – at their home ground just off the M6, The Banks’s Stadium.
The competitive nature of the play-off race has been clear throughout this run, with just ten points now separating 1st from 5th. While Walsall have fallen to defeat on just ten occasions this season – winning 23 and drawing 12 – they have so far been outdone points-wise by the likes of Burton and Wigan, both of whom have impressed Bradshaw this season.
“We gave them [Wigan] a real game at their place but their depth of their squad mean they are extremely strong. Burton were impressive as well. It is no surprise they are near the top of the table.”
Despite the obvious strengths that the current automatic promotion favourites possess, Bradshaw and his teammates were still able to collect one win and two draws in four matches – with the only defeat coming at home to Wigan back in February. “Away, Burton were such a difficult team to play against,” he went on to explain.
When discussing the quality of talent on show in League One, Bradshaw was also full of praise for his club teammate Romaine Sawyers, who, at 24 years of age, has drawn plaudits for his excellent performances in a Walsall shirt this term. When asked which player has impressed him most this term, he heaped praise on the Saint Kitts and Nevis international:
“I know he’s a teammate but I think Romaine Sawyers. He’s getting the plaudits he’s deserved from the last two seasons to be honest. As my strike partner I see it more than most and he creates so much for us as a team.”
Rewind to the beginning of the current campaign, and a Capital One Cup hat-trick against Nottingham Forest laid the groundwork for a successful season in front of goal for Bradshaw. Naturally, his performance in Walsall’s remarkable 4-3 victory over the Championship outfit, has only fuelled his motivation to become a recognised goal scorer in the upper echelons of the English football pyramid:
“I’ve played against Championship sides before and earlier in the season manager to score three against Nottingham Forest in a cup game. Becoming a seasoned striker in the Championship is the next step and from there who knows. Every player wants to test themselves against the best, so that is my next step and hopefully it’ll be with Walsall.”
Though reluctant to compare himself to a Premier League or Championship striker, stating “I have my own qualities, so I just have to be the best version of me”, Bradshaw recognised the similarities between himself and Middlesbrough hotshot Jordan Rhodes.
“I am probably a bit like Rhodes,” he said. “I don’t think we’re blessed with lightening pace, but we love scoring goals. I find myself in scoring situations as often as I can and he’s a great finisher, so hopefully there are some similarities between us.”
Bradshaw does indeed love scoring goals, and the statistics reflect this. In his two seasons at Walsall to date, he has scored 33 goals 69 league appearances, while netting a further six across 14 domestic cup fixtures – an average hit rate of just less than a goal per game. When discussing his scoring record, he stated:
“My target every season, as I think every striker’s should be, is 20 goals in all competitions.”
A modest target for a man who falls just one goal short of this tally, especially considering there is one fixture remaining of the traditional 46 game campaign. With a goal (or two) against Port Vale, followed by a successful run out in the play-offs, Bradshaw could well exceed his personal target for the first time in his senior career.
While for Bradshaw, goals have been somewhat of a luxury, when asked to pick his favourite strike of the campaign, he opted for his sumptuous chip against Doncaster back in October. The Welshman scored twice in a 2-0 victory over Donny, but his second was undoubtedly the pick of the brace. After volleying home a rebound from Kieron Morris’ shot, he them raced onto a pass from substitute Jordan Cook and chipped in to clinch the points for the Saddlers.
“In terms of a favourite goal, I scored a chip against Doncaster quite early in the season, which I was pretty pleased with. It was a difficult one to execute but I managed to lift it over the keep it fell just under the crossbar.”
Bradshaw’s performances at club level have not gone unnoticed by those on the international stage. Despite being born in Shrewsbury, England, he qualifies for Wales – having spent five years in compulsory education across the border – and somewhat unsurprisingly, his goal scoring feats this season have finally seen him selected at senior level by Chris Coleman and co.
His name first shot to international prominence when included on the standby list for the senior Wales national team for the Euro 2016 qualifying matches against Bosnia & Herzegovina and Cyprus in October 2014, shortly after his move to Walsall. However, he had to withdraw due to picking up a hamstring injury in a match against Bristol City for his new club.
The 23-year-old was first named in the senior squad in November for a friendly international versus the Netherlands, but did not make an appearance during a 3-2 defeat in Cardiff. He was also kept in reserve in a subsequent 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland.
Nonetheless, after a year and half of waiting, he eventually made his debut for Chris Coleman’s men when he came on as a second half substitute in a 1-0 defeat to Ukraine in Kiev. The 23-year-old cut a confident figure as he replaced Cardiff striker Tom Lawrence to earn his first ever cap for The Dragons, but he admits that he quickly felt the height of the occasion:
“It sort of hit me when I was standing on the pitch having final made my debut. It was very exciting and the nerves were going a bit as well, but I loved it and I like to think I made my mark on the game.”
While the usual household names, the likes of Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey and Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale etc., were not involved on either of the occasions that Bradshaw received a Wales call-up, the Walsall front-man was in awe at the quality of the rest of the squad. Speaking of his initial experience at international level, Bradshaw appeared full of excitement. He said:
“It was incredible. to be involved in the whole set up with the lads was amazing.”
He continued, “Just training with the calibre of player was something I’ll never forget. It’s a great experience being around those lads and hopefully I’ll get the chance to train with Gareth [Bale] and Aaron [Ramsey] in the future.” If he can maintain his excellent form in front of goal, there is no reason this won’t happen in the very near future.
During his brief debut, he put in a good shift. He looked lively and brought an energy to the final third that had been lacking for much of the game in Kiev, as well as the following Northern Ireland clash. While Bradshaw is unlikely to be looking much further than the end of the season with Walsall, he will have to fancy himself with an outside shot of being included in the Wales squad for the Euro’s in France.
Bradshaw was subject to interest from various Championship outfits, including the likes of Birmingham, Reading and Blackburn, but the club were quick to quash any approach for his services. The chances are, if Walsall fail in their promotion bid this time round, he will be greeted with even stronger interest, and this could prove very difficulty for the club to resist.
Nonetheless, when asked whether the Saddlers will be a second-flight side come the start of next season, the 23-year-old had absolutely no doubt:
“Yes, 100%. I think we’ve been the best team in the league this season and hopefully come the end of the campaign, we will be rewarded for it.”
He remains fully confident in the club’s chances of promotion this season, and why shouldn’t he be? He is, after all, leading a very strong charge.
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