By Tony Leighton
Walsall's James Baxendale is in the best form of his burgeoning career and, after bouncing back from twice being released by Football League clubs and then dropping into non-league, the 21-year-old midfielder is an object lesson to any youngster who has suffered rejection as he strives to make his way in the game.
Two clubs from his native Yorkshire - Leeds United and Doncaster Rovers - had Baxendale on their books but cut him adrift. And, although after a spell with Northern Premier League side Buxton, he got back into the League with Hereford United, he dropped out again when the Bulls were relegated into the Conference.
It was finally at Walsall, whose assistant manager Richard O'Kelly had worked with Baxendale at both Doncaster and Hereford, where the young midfield man became established after joining the Sky Bet League 1 club at the start of last season and then signing a new three-year deal in August this year.
With the Saddlers going really well this term - they are currently sitting seventh in the table and only a point below the Play-Off places - Baxendale told football-league.co.uk: "It's great to be playing first-team football on a regular basis, especially in a team that's flying at the moment.
"Since I was a kid this is what I've worked for, and there's no way I'm going to stop working after the knocks I've had. At Leeds I didn't play as well as I could at youth team level after progressing well until I was 16, but I knew that I had it in me to come good and I still felt the same way when Doncaster let me go.
"I've been fortunate that Richard O'Kelly had faith in me, and he's played a massive part in my career. I was sad when he left Donny [where O'Kelly was number two to manager Sean O'Driscoll], but I was really pleased to link up with him again at Hereford and then again when I came to Walsall last year.
"Getting a contract here was a big confidence boost, and after having a decent number of games last season it was just great to be given a three-year contract at the start of this season. Now I want to play as many games as I can, score a few more goals than I've managed to get so far and keep on progressing."
As Baxendale progresses his playing career, Walsall are making progress in their bid to clinch a promotion that would take them back up to the Championship for what would be the first time for a decade. And with some impressive results to their name in the first third of the campaign, they undoubtedly have a chance.
The Saddlers have beaten League 1 leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers and third in the table Peterborough United, and they were also the first team to prevent previous leaders Leyton Orient from winning a game - they drew 1-1 despite playing 72 minutes with 10 men after captain Andy Butler was sent off.
Baxendale said: "I believe we can beat anybody in League 1 - there's definitely no-one we need to be afraid of. I want to to play at the highest level I can achieve, just like any ambitious youngster, and hopefully I can climb higher then League 1 with Walsall. It's certainly a great place for me to be developing my game."
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