THURROCK is a borough full of football people, but many of them prefer to watch the likes of West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal. In the 1990s, teams from the area started to acquire some ambition, not altogether unrelated to the rise of clubs from Billericay and Canvey Island. Grays Athletic, which was always considered to be Thurrock’s leading club, until Purfleet (later Thurrock) came on the scene, had a golden period in the early years of the 21st century.
It almost looked too good to be true and indeed it probably was, but Grays had a three-year spell where they won the FA Trophy twice and went so close to securing a place in the Football League! But by 2010, Grays were in reduced circumstances and playing in front of crowds of little more than 200. So, what went wrong.
In 2003, Grays went full-time, a bold move for a club that was attracting crowds of barely 300 people. They picked up a lot of young players from academies, but they were also reputed to be paying, in relative terms, considerable sums of money to players. This was on the eve of the somewhat flawed restructuring of non-league football, extending the Conference to three divisions. At the end of 2003-04, Grays found themselves in sixth place in the Isthmian Premier which placed them in the new Conference South.
In their new surroundings, Grays saw their gates rise to an average of 568, and on the field, they had an excellent season, winning the league with 98 points and losing just four games. Mark Stimson, in his first managerial position, was an advocate of attacking and entertaining football and it showed – Grays scored 118 goals in 42 games. In addition, Grays won the FA Trophy at Villa Park, beating Hucknall on penalties after a 1-1 draw. The Blues had beaten Burton Albion, Exeter City, Altrincham, Havant, Sutton, Windsor and Great Wakering on a long and glorious run.
The following season, Grays started life in the Conference National with a 15-game unbeaten run. Moreover, crowds went up to an average of 1,400 per game as the Grays public started to buy into the project started by director of football Mick Woodward. The 2005-06 season saw Grays finish third in the Conference and qualify for the play-offs to the Football League.
The semi-final first leg, at Halifax, was a disaster as the home side took advantage of Grays’ defensive frailties to race into a 3-0 lead after just half an hour. They came back to 3-2, but they were up against it in the second leg when Halifax took the lead early on. Grays levelled in the second half through Michael Kightly and went ahead through John Nutter, but a penalty levelled the scores once more. As much as Grays tried, they could not save the day and they lost 5-4 on aggregate.
A few days later, there was considerable consolation as Grays retained the FA Trophy, beating Woking 2-0 at Upton Park. Grays could scarcely have had a tougher path to the final, slaloming their way past Aldershot, Kidderminster, Hereford, Dagenham & Redbridge and Exeter City to reach the final but at West Ham, they played open, attractive football to beat the Surrey side. The Daily Telegraph, so impressed by Grays, commented: “the stunning performance of Stimson’s side gave the east side of London something to celebrate”.
The eldest player in the Grays side was goalkeeper Ashley Bayes, in his early 30s when he joined the club from Hornchurch. There were other members of the squad that had previously played for Hornchurch – centre back Jamie Stuart and central midfielder John Martin were among them. One of Grays’ key players was John Nutter, a fast, attacking full back who joined from Aldershot. Midfielders Stuart Thurgood and Michael Kightly were former Tottenham youngsters. Thurgood, skipper of the team, dominated the centre of the park in the 2006 final against Woking. Glenn Poole, who scored one of the goals, arrived from Thurrock in 2005 but had been at Southend earlier in his career. Grays’ strength was their fleet-footed attack, Dennis Oli and Aaron McLean. Stimson commented after the Woking game: “Over the 90 minutes we probably just had a little bit too much movement for Woking. I always fancy us to score more than the opposition – if they get three we will get four.” One interesting member of the Grays squad was a very raw youngster named Gary Hooper, who went on to play for Celtic and is currently with Sheffield Wednesday.
The team that beat Woking was: Ashley Bayes, Andy Sambrook, John Nutter, Jamie Stuart, Stuart Thurgood, Dennis Oli, John Martin, Aaron McLean, Michael Kightly, Glenn Poole, Christian Hanson.
Mark Stimson resigned 48 hours after the FA Trophy final. An ambitious man, he gambled on being offered a chance to manage at Football League level. He told the local media: “I made my mind up after the Trophy win. The performance was so good and the whole day was special. I was devastated after going out of the play-offs. I really thought we would get into the league. The opportunity was there and I’m not sure it will come along again.”
His words were prophetic, for Grays would never fly so high again. In fact, in 2008, the club announced a 50% cut to its playing budget and by 2010, were bottom of the Conference. They went straight to the Isthmian Division One North, although at one point, it looked like they would be heading for the Essex Senior League. They also lost their ground and have spent the last seven seasons ground-sharing. The future may be a little brighter now as the club is in negotiations for a new home, but the period since 2004 is a warning to any club that becomes a little bit too ambitious. That said, Grays fans will never forget that short period of unprecedented success.