IN April, it will be five years since Grays Athletic played their last game in Grays.
Nobody knows when and if the club, that has been going for nearly 135 years will ever return again to the town of Grays.
The news that a planning application for 501 homes in Purfleet Road, Aveley has been rejected by the Secretary of State seems to be a massive setback.
To the uninitiated, that may seem a bit confusing and to be honest, the uninitiated may not have the slightest interest in this story, but, in case they do, we think it goes like this: If the homes had been given the green light, there could have been an agreement that a sports hall (for the general benefit of the borough) could have been built in the grounds of Treetops School and after that, Grays may have had the opportunity to access land from Thurrock Council in order to put a football ground in the vicinity of Treetops.
All sounds a bit convoluted but that can sometimes be the case with Grays Ath. But they are not alone. There is many a planning application that has a road with twists and turns in it.
Now that this avenue looks like it has been closed, those associated with Grays are discussing Plan B.
The owner of Grays Ath, Andy Swallow, has issued a statement and is contemplating their next move.
What are the alternatives?
1. Remain at or with Aveley.
Do nothing is not an option. Do nothing means staying at Aveley until they move. Follow them across the road? Could Grays simply remain as someone’s tenant?
If they did, there is a real risk and it is happening at the moment that the support for the club will slowly dwindle. There is now a hardcore of 150 fans. Can you have a viable future with 150 fans. Hasn’t stopped East Thurrock from knocking on the door of the Conference South.
Being someone’s tenant for the next ten or twenty years just doesn’t seem to be much of a plan, much of a future or basically, much fun.
2. Play at Thurrock Harriers
Some say, this was rejected because the team would not be able to play certain matches there (FA Cup). If the reason is the track, then how comes teams such as AFC Hornchurch and Enfield are able to function quite happily?
2. Put a planning application to build a ground in Grays. We are not talking about building the Emirates Stadium. Mark out the lines, go to E-Bay like Brightlingsea Regent did and buy a stand and off we go?
How are they going to fund that?
The answer may partly lie in an alleged Â£700,000 that lies in an account, waiting to be used for the benefit of sport in the area we know as Grays.
YT understands that this was part of a covenant.
YT understands that when the Billings family bought Bridge Road in 1982, they leased out the ground to Grays Ath. By 2009 they were looking for another Â£40,000 a year in rent. We believe the chairman wasn’t prepared to keep paying this so the rest is history or the houses that you see there now.
But, we believe, that Â£700,000 is still sitting in an account ready to be used.
Grays Athletic probably wanted to go forward with the Treetops plan with as much potential capital as possible. That looks unlikely now. So, they may have to make best use of what they can lay their hands on
If there is an alternative to this, then we would be very interested to hear from them.
A number of people at Grays are angry right now. Politicians mainly. Pride hurts but it very rarely helps.
They are angry with their MP, Jackie Doyle-Price. We can see how they could be angry and she has done herself no favours in how the MP has presented her message. But does not mean that she is wrong. We understand her line is that the application was unlawful and that was the decision of the Planning Inspectorate and the Secretary of State.
If it helps, have a look at the film of the planning meeting in November 2013 and view the thoughts of the then councillor Phil Anderson. We don’t know if he is right or wrong but it makes sense to us.
What confuses people is when they see applications go through such as St Clere’s Golf Course and Bata Fields. They get confused when they hear of Local Development Plans and Core Strategies.
But that is why, they may need to read the reasons why this application was turned down by the inspector.
Perhaps, someone needs to write an Planning matters in Thurrock for dummies.
The Grays Athletic fans are angry with Thurrock Council and have been for some time.
They feel, rightly or wrongly, that the council does not bat for them. Just because they are paranoid, doesn’t mean they are out to get them!
Alernatively, perhaps they are being paranoid and underestimate that planning is, more than anything a bureaucratic process. You want to build then you follow the process: You fill in forms, you apply, you process, you pay the fees, you submit, you turn up to meetings, you speak for three minutes etc etc. Whether it is a dormer window in Stifford Clays or a lorry park in Oliver Road, the same process applies.
Does it help that the leader of Thurrock Council is also a president of East Thurrock United.
We don’t happen to think that influences the way John Kent thinks for one minute. In the same way,that it did not influence the decisions made by, South Basildon and East Thurrock MP, Angela Smith, when she was in office and was also president. To us, it just does not help matters and it winds up the Grays fans.
Somewhere along the line we wanted to include a few words on Mickey Woodward. Some people often ask us if we think Mickey is still involved in the running of Grays Athletic.
To be honest, we don’t know. But it would make economic sense for him to be playing a part in the background. And it is politics? When Tony Blair had to ditch his key advisers such as Peter Mandelson or Alistair Campbell, he may well have still been on the phone to them, at key moments, seeking advice.
To be fair, the new owners of Grays had to be canny. There was not a lot of love in the room as Grays left Bridge Road and many blamed Mickey. The relationship was best encapsulated in what was know as ‘The Histon hissy-fit"
It would have made sense to suggest that he take a back seat but remain in touch. Mickey may have helped broker Rush Green, he may have helped broker Aveley and, with the Westview Properties Limited bid for 501 homes in Aveley, have been helping to facilitate, the re-birth of Grays Athletic in Grays. Perhaps Andy Swallow was just trying to be as diplomatic as possible regarding how he retained the power and influence of Mickey with the sensitivities of the fans.
So, we just thought we would get this off our chest and move on.
The crowds are now down to 150-200. Even at Rush Green, they were at 300 plus.
The club does not have a brand in Grays. If you mention the club in the borough, then it is a reference to the FA Trophy years for some but for others just happy days in the seventies and eighties at the New Rec playing in the Isthmian League.
But that could come back with years of work and you get the feeling they have the people to do it.
All that is a shame because you do see some very entertaining football being played by The Blues.
You also have to admire and respect the passion and commitment of Andy Swallow. When it comes to the matter of Grays Athletic, there is a drive and passion and dedication and it would be a shame if the five years he has been in charge, went to waste.
You have to admire the dedication by the hardy few. When we see people, you may never have heard of such as Mutely, Audrey, the Packers, Parker, Chris Jones, Glyn, Glynbo, Stifford Blue, the bloke that always shouts out "Your playing in Blue!", to name just a few (if we haven’t mentioned you sorry..) When you see them working so hard for the club, you do feel for them.
But they may also want to reflect that over the last few years, there has also been a lot of people, hurt, isolated, insulted and ignored, who would take a lot of persuading to come back again.
Reports of Grays demise have always been mooted since that final game at Bridge Road. However, they do have a knack of coming bouncing back. Whether it was that first game against Harlow at Rookery Hill in August 2010 or the move to Rush Green in August 2012 or when they were fifteen points behind Maldon and Tiptree in January 2013 and when they were heading to the bottom in Jan 2014. There is a survival gene somewhere in the very DNA of Grays Athletic.
This is the ninth season that this reporter has covered the Blues. This reporter is not a supporter but when you have travelled from Carlisle to Torquay, covering Grays Athletic, then you cannot help but have a form of interest in the club.
The powers that be will be mulling over their options and to be honest, who could blame them if they walked away? One can only do so much. But the bottom line is that they cannot continue this nomadic existence. They need to move to Grays and lay down some roots. If they don’t then they will run the very great risk of withering and dying.
No doubt someone will tell us, "Ah, what you need to know" or "What you don’t understand" etc etc. Maybe. But all we understand is that this is a club with a dwindling fan base, that train in Loughton and a caretaker manager. It has a history written in stone but a future shrouded in mist.