There was once a time when Grays Athletic were the non-league top dogs in the county of Essex. Back in 2006, the club were just one promotion away from the Football League, playing in front of four-figure crowds in the top level of non-league football, and being run by an ambitious local businessman in Mick Woodward. Life at the Recreation Ground seemed very good indeed.
Mick Woodward arrived at the club in 2001, and under his stewardship the team rose from the Isthmian League to the Football Conference (Now the National League) and went extremely close to achieving a remarkable promotion to the football league at the end of the 2006/2007 season. A third place finish in the Football Conference that year gave Grays a shot at the play-offs, but they were denied in the semi-finals by Halifax Town with the Football League within touching distance.
However, despite play-off heartache, they did manage to achieve success in the non-league’s biggest cup competition during their rapid rise up the non-leagues, winning the FA Trophy twice in 2004/05 and 2005/06.
After the extreme highs of their first season in the Football Conference, the club never rose to such lofty heights again, and a succession of managers came and went, including the likes of Mark Stimson, Andy King and Justin Edinburgh, but there was very little in the way of further progress. The owner Mick Woodward also had two spells in charge of the first team as the club clung to life in the Conference. In one season they used 50 players, a staggering amount for any club at any level of the game.
After the club resigned from the Football Conference in 2010, a downward spiral began that almost saw the club drop to the depths of the Essex Senior League. It was a traumatic time for the club and its supporters, but after much deliberation with Isthmian League officials the club was eventually accepted into the North section of the Isthmian League, four promotions from the Conference where they had been before their demotion.
The club stabilised at step 4 in the Non-League pyramid and three years after their swift drop down the leagues, they tasted success again after lifting the Isthmian League Division One North title and winning promotion back the Premier Division of the Isthmian League in 2012/13, with a record points haul to boot. They have remained at the same level ever since.
Despite success on the pitch between 2004 and 2008, off the pitch things weren’t as rosy for the club and its supporters. The Recreation Ground had been Grays’ home since 1906, but financial problems in the 1980’s meant the trustees had to sell the ground the club patron Ron Billings, who paid £82,000 for the lease in 1982, which at the time kept the club afloat. When Mick Woodward arrived in 2001 the club began a modernisation program to improve the facilities at the Rec but they still didn’t own their home.
The cost of the ground redevelopment came at minimal expense to the club, but with the Billings Family wanting to sell the land to allow new homes to be built on the site, Grays’ time at the Rec eventually came to end when they were left homeless at the end of the 2009/10 campaign after club officials failed to agree a lease for another year.
Despite a new site being found and plans being drawn up for a new ground in Aveley back in 2008, the local Thurrock council rejected their plans and the club have been living a nomadic existence ever since. After losing their home, the club spent a period of time sharing with East Thurrock United and FC Clacton, before an agreement was reached with near neighbours Aveley to share their Mill Field ground.
Around the rest of the county the rise of Essex clubs such as Dagenham & Redbridge, Braintree Town, Concord Rangers and East Thurrock United must be tough to stomach for Grays Athletic supporters, but just having a club too support I’m sure means more than being top dogs on in the Essex non-league scene.
In August 2016 Grays Athletic Community Football Club Ltd, a supporter-owned enterprise, raised enough funds to purchase the club from its original owners with many now hoping it dawns a new era for the club.
A new manager also took the reins in the summer, however the new boss Jamie Stuart is man well known to those involved with Grays having previously played for the club and also managed for one game during Woodward era.
Saturday 20th August 2016 – Ryman League Premier – Grays Athletic 1 v 1 Bognor Regis Town – Att 127
An opening day 1-1 draw away at Leatherhead for Jamie Stuart and his players were followed up by a 3-1 home defeat to AFC Sudbury in midweek, which meant the club were still searching for that first win of the season as Sussex side Bognor Regis Town made the journey to Essex on match-day three.
The Sussex club went agonisingly close to both the title and promotion from the Ryman Premier Division in 2015/16, but missed out on goal difference and eventually suffered further headache in the play-off semi-final losing to Dulwich Hamlet. Dulwich went on to lose to East Thurrock United in the final.
This summer has been a long and tough one for Bognor manager Jamie Howell having lost many of his key players from last season including strikers Jason Prior and Alex Parsons, who both left to join rivals Havant & Waterlooville. However, Jamie Howell is no stranger to having to rebuild his squads having had to do the same back in the summer of 2012 when the club agonisingly missed out on promotion via the play-offs and many of his squad moved on to higher placed clubs or to clubs paying higher salaries than Bognor.
Bognor started this season with a disappointing 3-1 home defeat to Lowestoft Town, but rallied in midweek to come away from a tough trip to Mertsham with a point from a 1-1 draw after opening the scoring on the night.
After a summer of very little rain in the UK, the pitch at Mill Field looked very dry in places, and the windy weather hardly contributed to a great spectacle as both side tried getting the ball down and playing on the deck. It was an evenly matched contest in the early exchanges with both sides creating openings but not being able to finish. The away side looked their most threatening when Ollie Pearce used his pace to good effect to cause problems to the Grays back line. Grainger in the Bognor goal was grateful to his captain as Dan Beck did well to block a shot from Grays Adeyinka Cole.
The opening goal of the contest arrived in the 18th minute as good build up play from Bognor saw James Fraser sweep the ball into the back of the net from the edge of the area. The game was still evenly matched at this point, but Grays manager felt he needed a change when he brought himself on in the 28th minute to sure things up at the back.
Both sides continued to create chances despite the strong wind ensuring the ball spent a lot of time in the air. Siao Blackward’s header forced a good save from Grainger after a good cross from Cole, and James Fraser should have done better when he skied over after Byrne’s good run saw the ball run kindly him on the edge of the box.
Jamie Stuart and Dan Beck were having a good old tussle throughout, but the referee decided enough was enough just before half time when Beck was shown a yellow for a hard tackle on Stuart.
After the half time team talks by both the Jamie’s, it was the home side who created more clear cut chances during the second period. Bognor midfielder Doug Tuck went close early in the half when he got on the end of a low cross from Pearce but his shot found the side netting.
Lheuroux Menga went even closer than Tuck when his header from a David Fallah corner somehow stayed out after hitting the post and then landing safely back in the arms of Grainger. Menga was in the thick of the action and he should have done better when he fired a shot over the bar with Grainger way off his line.
Jamie Stuart was the next to go close for Grays when he narrowly headed wide from a Cole corner. The Manager making his presence felt in the opponent’s box as well as his own. The equaliser finally came for Grays on 63 minutes when Bognor sub Sami Ed-Abd halted the run of Fallah in the penalty area and the referee pointed to the spot. Cole stepped up and tucked away the penalty. It was just reward for Grays and their positive start to the second half.
The game continued with both sides looking to win the game. A long throw from Gary Charman was flicked on by El-Abd into the path of Tuck by he screwed his shot wide as Bognor went close in the last 15 minutes. It was a physical contest throughout and the referee was forced to show two yellow cards to Grays players, one for a bad tackle and another for arguing with the officials.
As the game wound down to the last few minutes, Bognor forced a few corners but Stuart and his back line stood firm with the Grays goalkeeper showing a pair of safe hands with some confident catches.
In the end a draw was about the right result for both sides and the two Jamie’s who both have work to do to get their teams heading in the right direction up the table.