A Personal View
This is an affectionate piece. No politics, no sideswipes, no slamming. Just a look at the reporting on a football team from December 2006 to April 2010.
I Don’t Want To Go To Gravesend…..
I recall watching Grays Athletic v Gravesend on Sky in December 2006. It lashed down with rain and looked throughly miserable. I was grateful that I wasn’t the sports reporter for the Thurrock Gazette. Everything else in the borough was keeping me busy. I had only been at the paper for a few months. While I covered crime and politics in the borough (two separate subjects by the way….) I became increasingly aware that reporter Ryan Goad seemed to be very busy. The names kept changing: Stimmo, Frank Gray, Gary Hill etc…It is when he said the Chairman is now the manager, I thought of one of the teams that I had reported on, Carlisle United and many strange conversations I had had with their eccentric Chair, Mike Knighton and so I thought….all yours Ryan…
Ryan left in Feb 2007. We were left with no football reporter but I had noticed that Justin Edinburgh was now manager and I had reported on his first ever game (Hearts v Spurs..Aug 1990) and I thought I would like to catch up with him. So I said I would cover a game.
I went to Oxford v Grays. Jim Smith on the bench and Jim Rosenthal in the Directors Box and Justin in his trademark white shirt. Grays drew. All I could recall was that Dennis Oli who was clearly out of position and should have been playing up front. That was the first chippy thing I wrote and it wasn’t going to be the last. I joined the scrum around Justin afterwards. I immediately gained the impression that he loved football. That he was very proud to have been a professional footballer and involved in the game.
The season lurched on. There was a doldrum of draws punctuated by another FA Trophy run. I had no idea they had won two FA Trophy finals but their run energised them and especially that man Thurgood, who was a force of nature. I was particularly impressed with the whole team at the semi-final second leg at Stevenage where Grays played a dynamic 4-3-3. At the time, I thought Justin Edinburgh had something going here.
All The Right Notes but not Necessarily…….
The season lumbered on and seemed to be heading for a last game showdown at Morecambe. we went up to the game, posed by the Eric Morecambe statue and saw Grays do enough to ensure survival. It was then, speaking to the fans that I started to realise how important this team, this culture, this sport was to many people from Grays.
The close season came and went and I realised looking at the fans forum that the fans loved to chat. I slowly started to become acquainted with Rick and all the other names, agent provocateurs etc.
You just dont get this at Man Utd. Steve the Taxi throws sweets up at the press box. The Codfather pops in to take a teamsheet. Walking to the press box, the lady with the silver hair and glasses shouts out” Oi, stop filming Tattoo John”. I still wonder who Rick is.
I thought John Taylor was mad at first and then I realised it was passion. Dickie and the 50/50. Ah and my good friend Floydman on the PA: “..and the substitute for Derby County is……oh…sorry..we don’t appear to be playing Derby County….” or…”The meeting will take place in the clubhouse after the war………?”
The fans just to the right of the press box..like a mass Stadler and Waldorf. Glyn’s gloves that you can hear from 300 yards…The fans who made it to Halifax on a cold tuesday night. The fans all dressed up at Morecambe.
Stevie D annoying the hell out of us. Bryan Coker: “Do something Justin. Get Kedwell on”
Oh and Lambo out of breath as he ran across the pitch with his team sheet.
Pre-season friendlies 2007.
The players amassed were fascinating. It seemed that they were compiling a team that was ready to have another crack at League Two.
Some players stick out. In a pre-season against Wolves I watched from the press box as former teen prodigy Charley Hearn played a wonderful through ball to Aaron O’Connor. At that time I wondered if that ball as part of a comeback for the player touted as future player of the century by The Sun in 1999 or was a man playing a cameo in his own career.
….and then there was Ernie Cooksey. I have always loved the water carrier and thought he was such a vital cog to the team and as the team cut its way through the pre seasons, it looked like it had the makings…..
Torquay was a lovely weekend. Again, we loved staying at a hotel, having a drink with the fans and watching the first game of the season (also live on Setanta). Torquay, I soon began to learn were one of many teams who told Grays: “Oh…we’re not staying. We are just passing through..and Mansfield and Cambridge and York etc etc……
The season looked set up but it then all began to look a bit twitchy and hesitant. Justin didn’t seem himself. Mrs Casey recalled the pre-season at Margate and was convinced that something had unsettled him (no politics…Ed).
The team started to lose and before you knew it, they were hovering above the relegation zone. It looked like Justin knew how to get his team to defend but couldn’t get them scoring. He also struggled to find his best eleven.
Oct: Grays 0 v 2 Weymouth.
For 45 minutes, Matt Barker from BBC Essex and myself waited as the Chairman “discussed” the clubs position. When we went into the office, Justin, Garry Phillips, Jimmy Dack all sat together and chatted. We had the questions to ask but you really felt for them. The pressure etched on their faces. It seemed the sack just a breath away.
For some reason I decided to drive up to Halifax for the next game. What amazed me was that on a horrible night in a horrible stadium so did many many other fans. I had to admire them. Grays drew 0-0. All I recall is an extraordinarily poor performance by a right back who came on for the last ten.
The team started to regroup and by christmas it was putting in some wonderful performances. The one that stands out was at home versus Aldershot. 1500 fans tighltly packed into the New Rec to see the Blues against the leaders of the the BSP. Justin outthought them and the team outfought them.
2008 came and Grays put in a “hungover” performance at Ebbsfleet, losing 4-1. From that point there seemed to be a steady decline in the team and Justin’s desire until an insipid goal-less draw at Oxford saw his regime come to an end.
From there, a quartet of Tim O’Shea, Neil Smith, Garry Phillips and Mick Woodward took over. At times it looked like an audition with Tim standing at the back of the press box and giving it large. Especially for poor Marlon Paterson..”Steady Marlon, Marlon..tracking Marlon…….Marlon..percentages..Marlon……composure….”
But say what I liked..it seemed to be working. Simon Downer never looked too impressed but the team were difficult to beat and at one stage started to get a whiff of the play-offs. In the end it didn’t happen but at the last game of the season at Farsley, everyone seemed to be in good humour.
But that wasn’t the last game of the season.
A week later, I travelled across to Welling to interview Ernie Cooksey at his home with his pregnant fiancee. In journalism, you never get used to “death” stories. I had a coffee with Ernie. We chatted and chatted and chatted about football. After 45 minutes, I turned to the subject of “the illness”. Ernie clasped his fiancee’s hand and said: “We are going to fight this” but no sooner had the words “fight” came out than the eyes of the young couple welled with tears.
The rest was……but it was good to see the players past and present at the funeral and the sight of Ernie scoring for Oldham and the sounds of R.Kelly as he left the church are seared in the memory.
After a steady start to the season, more changes: Wayne Burnett took over as manager. Wayne had something about him. A thinker and an independent man. There was something of the polytechnic lecturer about him.
He started to carve the team in his image and made them difficult to beat. Doughty away wins at York and Ebbsfleet illustrated the grit in his team. Indeed, the team so nearly beat Carlisle in the FA Cup.
When Sam Sloma scored in the 18th minute, it looked as if a big night was on the cards. When the floodlight blew, it was Goodnight Vienna.
The season kept going and so did the team. Ishmael Welsh started to come more and more into the team, the team played well in places but found it difficult to score.
Wayne went and Garry Phillips took over again. Half the time, Garry had the look of a man who should be wearing a tin hat, the other half he had a resigned smile as if to say: “Hey, this is the working world I am used to.”
Garry steered the team away from relegation. Ishmael scored the goal of the season at Forest Green…and then Grays were saved from relegation before the last game of the season against Forest Green. Who would have bet on that?
We miss them. The cotttage pie at Kidderminster, Colin Peake at Forest Green, Timmy Mallet at Oxford, no electricity at Farsley, listening to Welsh commentary at Wrexham “Croeso Cymru”, great geordie humour at Gateshead
2009-2010: The Beginning of The End and End of the Beginning
A new season, a new regime both on and off the pitch. The budget slashed and we looked out a pre-season friendlies at a mish-mash of triallists and underwhelming players.
The season had a strange feel to it. Under Julian Dicks there were glimmers of hope in good performances against Cambridge and Stevenage but the team looked to be struggling on so many fronts as the natural rhythms of any empire simply fell into place
It is about now that we bowed out. We pledged to not comment on the politics of Grays Athletic. This is neither time nor the place. The club hasn’t died but the time at Bridge Road is over.
The iron laws of history is that “things change”. Grays Athletic are not alone. If you read many stories on YourThurrock you will see people and organisations struggling with the “regeneration” agenda.
Since being “constructively banned” we will admit that we have missed it. The press box banter was great. The BBC lads desperately trying to get a feed. My wife Sally dishing out Lemon Cake to the other journos. Press Association legend and Basildon Chair Dave Cusack telling us stories of Cloughie and Millwall, the shouty blokes from BBC Southern Counties “we can hear you”, the BBC Radio 5 women: “But i booked a seat, i can’t sit with…the…fans”
So there you have it. I was only a year old when Accrington Stanley went out of business and look where they are now. Exactly….
Speaking to George Watts as he recalled stories of men being held aloft in Grays High Street as they returned from winning the Essex Senior Cup in 1914. Those days can come again.
In the past four years, I have sat at grounds from Ross County to Torquay, from Old Trafford and Wembley to Olhanense and Huelva but there will always be an affection for the New Recreation Ground in Bridge Road, Grays.
Don’t Dream It’s Over.
………………and for the benefit of Stevie D/Albert Ross it is a Crowded House song from 1986. Crowded House are a New Zealand pop group. Steve..pop music is an art form established in the mid part of the twentieth….oh never mind…….