GRAYS ATHLETIC FOOTBALL CLUB HISTORY
The roots of the modern day Grays Athletic can be traced back as far as 1888, although 1890 has become the de facto established formation date. The reasons for this disparity are almost certainly lost in the mists of time. Grays Athletic therefore celebrated its centenary in 1990, played at The Recreation Ground, Bridge Road from 1906 to 2010, and became members of the Athenian League in 1912.
Grays became very strong after the Second World War, winning the Essex Senior Cup in 1945 and winning the Corinthian League and Cup in 1946. They rejoined the Athenian League in 1958 where they remained until 1983.
In 1981 the Club Patron Mr Ron Billings purchased the ground and the Club was reformed as a Limited Company in 1982 under the guidance of Jeff and Fred Saxton. In 1983 a fire destroyed the 400-seater stand that included the dressing and kit rooms. Ron Billings came to the rescue by building the Ball Court Complex that included dressing rooms, club room and bar. Grays went on to become Isthmian Division 2 Champions in 1985.
The 1987-88 season saw the Club promoted to the then Vauxhall Opel Premier League after amassing 100 points. They then won the Essex Senior Cup and the Essex Thameside Trophy. A great FA Cup run in 1988-89 ended in the First Round proper, losing 2-0 away at Bath City. Grays won the League Cup, defeating Enfield in 1991-92.
In 1993-94 and 1994-95 the Club won the Essex Senior Cup by defeating Billericay Town on both occasions. Relegated to Division One in 1997, they returned to the Premier Division in 1999-00. The FA Cup campaign in 2000-01 ended with defeat in the First Round proper for the third time, losing 4-0 away at Reading. This signalled the start of major changes with Mike Woodward installed as Director of Football, Craig Edwards as Manager and the departure of Jeff and Fred Saxton after 25 years of loyal service. Season 2002-03 started poorly and saw Edwards depart, being replaced by Mark Stimson as player manager who appointed Scott Barrett as his assistant. Ahead of the 2003-04 season, the Club made the bold decision to turn most of the players into full time professionals, with the majority of players in their early twenties.
Despite being knocked out of the FA Cup in the second qualifying round, 2004-05 became the most successful in the Club’s history. Stimson and his players won a number of manager and player of the month awards, with three players being called into the England National XI squad: Stuart Thurgood, Mitchell Cole and Dennis Oli. The ultimate success being crowned League Champions of the Nationwide Conference South and winning the FA Trophy; beating Hucknall Town on penalties at Villa Park. Additionally, the Recreation Ground had been upgraded sufficiently to allow for promotion into the Nationwide Conference for season 2005-06.
Mark Stimson’s philosophy of entertaining the crowds proved to be very successful with a blend of youthful exuberance and the outstanding quality of the more experienced players. Having equalled the Conference record of Kettering Town and going unbeaten in the first 15 fixtures of the season, both manager and players alike won several monthly awards. A contentious 3-0 defeat at the hands of Mansfield Town in the FA Cup was put to one side as the team turned their attention to the FA Trophy and the league. The Club’s first season in the top flight of non-league ended in disappointment as they finished 3rd in the league, and went on to lose 5-4 on aggregate to Halifax Town in the play-off semi-finals. The team put the loss behind them as they won a second successive FA Trophy, this time winning 2-0 against Woking at Upton Park in front of more than 8,000 of their own fans in an attendance of nearly 15,000.
Following Mark Stimson’s resignation, the Club appointed former European Cup winner Frank Gray to manage the side in the summer of 2006. Despite the pre-season expectations, Gray only lasted 18 matches before both Jamie Stuart and Mick Woodward had short spells in charge of the first team. Andy King was appointed manager, but his spell was short-lived and he left shortly afterwards, taking control of just seven matches. Justin Edinburgh was the club’s 4th manager of the season, and under his leadership the Club reached the FA Trophy semi-finals where they lost to eventual winners Stevenage Borough. Survival in the League went to the last day of the season and despite losing 1-0 to Morecambe, the club stayed up courtesy of other results going their way. An extremely indifferent 2007-08 campaign ultimately led to the Edinburgh’s departure, before once again Mick Woodward took the reins with Gary Phillips as his assistant. With only three defeats in the final 17 games, Grays only ended 11 points outside the playoffs. The management led the side into the following season, but Mick Woodward stepped down, and replaced himself with Wayne Burnett who stayed in the job for four months before leaving the Club. Gary Phillips was promoted from assistant manager for the remainder of the season and the club finished in 19th position.
2009-10 turned out to be the fifth and final in the Conference Premier as both John Moncur (Chairman) and Andy Swallow (Chief Executive) joined the Club. Julian Dicks was brought in to replace Gary Phillips in September 2009, and Kenny Brown was soon appointed his assistant after resigning from his position as manager of CD Javea in Spain.
The team struggled throughout the season, winning just five league matches and losing in their opening rounds of both the FA Cup and FA Trophy. The Blues did however manage to end the season on a high, winning two of their final three fixtures – the first of those away at AFC Wimbledon. In doing so, they recorded their first away league win for 16 months.
The final day of the season was a sad affair for the Club, as we said farewell to the Recreation Ground after 114 years. Both the team and the fans did their part, as the team came back to beat Forest Green Rovers 2-1 with Allseny Cissoko scoring the last goal at the ground. Following relegation, the Club resigned from the Conference, deciding they would be unable to field a competitive team in the Conference South due to budget constraints. Following talks with both the FA and the Ryman League, the Club were eventually placed in the Ryman League Division One North.
The end of that season saw the expiry of the lease at the Recreation Ground, and without a home, the Club agreed a two-year deal to play at Rookery Hill, home of near neighbours East Thurrock United. The 2010-11 season was our first at this level for ten years, and despite having a solid start to the league campaign, a lack of consistency was evident throughout the remainder of the season which meant the team came up short in several matches, finally finishing in tenth position.
Following the disappointing campaign, Julian Dicks and Kenny Brown left the club by mutual consent and the one-time Football League player and ex-Thurrock manager Hakan Hayrettin, was appointed as manager with his assistant Hassan Oktay for the 2011-12 season. With Hakan appointed, the remit was to challenge for a playoff place. Despite a few below par performances, the Club secured their playoff place on the penultimate weekend, meeting Enfield Town in the semi-final. Trailing 2-0 with ten minutes left, the team managed to force extra time with two late penalties. Unfortunately, with the match still level after extra time it was decided on penalties, with Grays losing 3-1.
The 2012-13 season was a very successful one for the Club. It started with a move to another temporary home, in Rush Green, Romford in partnership with West Ham United. The ground and its facilities were improved, with the Premier League side responsible for the maintenance of the pitch.
With just 4 league defeats and a run of form in the second half of the season which brought with it 18 successive league wins, the Club won the league with three matches to spare, finishing with a club record of 102 points. Two days after the title was secured, the side had the chance to complete the double, however they fell just short in the Essex Senior Cup final, losing 2-1 to Conference South side, AFC Hornchurch.
The summer of 2013 saw two big changes for the Club in a few short weeks. The stay at Rush Green was brought to an abrupt end, with near-neighbours Aveley stepping in with an offer of a ground share at the last minute. Everyone at the club is grateful to the Aveley Board for this. A short time after it was announced that Hakan Hayrettin would be leaving to join Luton Town. Experienced central defender Ryan Kirby took on the role, assisted by his father Steve Kirby and club captain Lee Flynn.
Season 2013-14 started with a great run of four straight victories in the Isthmian Premier Divsion including two against highly fancied teams and we led the League at the end of August. A solid start, but we all knew that to stay in that position would be a tough ask and so it proved, with only four wins in the next nine games. Joao Carlos and Jack West were scoring freely, but the team was leaking goals and by the end of September we were lying in mid-table. A return to the team of fans’ favourite Danny Bunce lifted the spirits of the supporters but the results still kept slipping away. A run of only five wins from October to the end of February saw Grays slip towards the relegation zone and a run of postponements due to heavy rain saw the mood within the camp at a low ebb. Even a run to the semi-finals of the League Cup couldn’t lift the gloom. Everything changed when prolific scorer Leroy Griffiths returned to the Club almost ten years since leaving. His enthusiasm and character changed the Club’s fortunes and with several other new signings the team found their confidence and fought their way back up the table with wins at regular intervals with Carlos, Dagenham & Redbridge loanee Joel Nouble and new signing Chris Benjamin scoring plenty of goals.
It took until the middle of April to catch up with the fixture backlog and the team had to play two or even three games a week, within which time they settled into a mid-table position - very commendable when you consider players have jobs outside football. The last game of the season saw the team lying in a safe position with a trip to high-flying Maidstone. Two coach loads of supporters and many more going by car meant that 150 fans travelled to Kent to cheer on the Blues. Although we lost a competitive game 2-1, everybody enjoyed the trip and gave the players a standing ovation at the final whistle, a great tribute to the thirty-odd players who had pulled on the shirt for our first season back in the Ryman Premier League in 10 years.
By the time the players got together for their first training session for the 2014-15 season on 28 June, we already had another new manager in place. A few days earlier Ryan Kirby had announced his resignation with family and business reasons leading to his decision. It showed once again the time required to manage a Club at our level. The Club acted quickly to interview candidates for his replacement and selected 35 year-old Jody Brown, who had stepped into the breach at Heybridge Swifts in December 2013 when their management duo left to take over at Chelmsford City. Jody moved quickly to assess the strength of the squad at his disposal and introduce a number of new players to assist the club in its plans to improve on and off the field.
At the end of December 2014 Jody Brown departed to take over the manager’s role at Conference National side Welling FC. Player Mark Bentley was installed as assistant manager to Andy Swallow, before taking over the role of caretaker manager in January 2015. In February 2015 the Club announced that Mark had been appointed permanent manager for the remainder of the 2014-15 season. The season culminated in a superb run of results for the Club, including an unbeaten run of thirteen matches, which saw the team miss out on the playoffs as a result of a 94th minute goal elsewhere on the final day of the season.
The 2015-16 season was a real see-saw affair. A great start saw us top of the League after 10 games and a good FA Cup run took the Blues to the final qualifying round, but we lost in a replay to National League side, Welling United. As we approached Christmas, there was unrest within the squad as a number of players were being encouraged by agents to look further afield in their careers. By the end of the season, 20 registered players had left the club, as owner, Andy Swallow, decided it was time to reduce his financial support for the Club. A run of ten straight defeats saw us finish in 15th place in the League, with many youngsters filling the gaps in the squad left by the departed players.
After Andy Swallow announced that he was stepping back from the day to day running of the Club to concentrate his efforts on the long term plan to relocate the Club back to Grays, a group of supporters set about creating a new Supporter Owned Club. A successful community share offer was launched at the end of June to demonstrate the club’s financial viability for the 2016-17 season. This gave the Club the confidence to apply to the Football Association and the Ryman League for permission to transfer its membership from the company that ran the Club to a new organisation - “Grays Athletic Community Football Club”. In November 2016 Grays Athletic Community Football Club received official confirmation from the FA and League that the transfer of ownership had been approved.
The 2016-17 season was always going to be one of transition with the club moving from private to supporter ownership. On the field, former playing legend, Jamie Stuart returned as player/manager, but he had to start from scratch with a new squad of players. 60 players attended pre-season trials and a squad was eventually chosen to represent the Club in the Ryman Premier Division. It proved to be a difficult season, with the team spending most of the season at the bottom of the table. Relegation was confirmed with a 1-0 away defeat at Wingate and Finchley on 1 April 2017. Off the field, the Club was pleased with the galvanising effect supporter ownership was having, despite the prospect of a return to Isthmian Division One North football after four seasons in the Premier Division.
2017-18 was very disappointing even though Jamie Stuart brought three experienced former Grays’ players – midfielder, Barry Cogan and forwards, Dennis Oli and Jamie Slabber, into the fold in pre-season and later recruited former defenders, Richard Halle and Joe Bruce. We spent most of the season hovering around the top ten without really threatening the leading pack. By the end of March, we were on course to finish in the top half of the table, but a run of five consecutive defeats in April, saw us finish 16th out of 24.
2018-19 proved to be another “in and out” season, although we did flirt with a play-off position on a few occasions. Towards the end of March 2019, with the club in ninth position in the league and ten games remaining, the board agreed to part company with Jamie Stuart and appointed the experienced former Metropolitan Police FC manager, Jim Cooper, supported by Paul Joynes as his assistant and Chris Bourne as coach. The last ten games saw some changes in playing personnel and we took sixteen points to finish seventh. Jim has begun to rebuild the squad with a good mix of experience and youth. He is very committed to working with our burgeoning youth section, which now boasts 27 teams. With three girls’ teams, veterans and even walking footballers, we can now provide all-inclusive, all-ability football for ages from 4 to 75! At the League AGM in June 2019, the Club was delighted to receive two awards – the Community Club of the Year and the best Programme in the North Division for the 2018-19 season.
The Club’s principal objective remains to develop a new community football facility in the North Grays area of Thurrock and we are working closely with Thurrock Council, local schools, the County Football Association and developers to “Bring Grays Athletic back to Grays”. In the meantime, we continue to groundshare with Aveley FC at their superbly appointed Parkside Stadium.