Like a veteran striker taking one last final payday after final payday in the hope they’ve got something to continue, there’s something rather depressing about the way Grays Athletic are playing this season. Almost, but not quite, as depressing as the town of Grays itself. Only Northfleet is possibly a more soul destroying place to visit.
But Grays themselves, under Mark Stimson (now of Gillingham, via Stevenage), used to play some of the best attacking football in the non-league in recent years. The squad that finished 3rd in their inaugural season in the Conference, losing to Halifax in the play-off semi-final, could surely have held its own in League 2.
Indeed many of that squad have gone onto bigger and better things. Star winger Michael Kightly has been tearing strips out of Championship defences for Wolves and has been tipped on numerous occasions for a move into the Premiership. Aaron McClean is a Peterborough goal machine having scored in seven consecutive games for the Posh , Glen Poole is now at Brentford, Gary Hooper at Southend (although currently on loan at Hereford) while Stuart Thurgood was probably one of the best defensive midfielders at non-league level, and him and Dennis Oli followed Stimpson to Gillingham this season. And let’s not forget Freddy Eastwood, who scored 37 goals for Grays before they got promoted.
The Grays side of the 05/06 season was exciting to watch and difficult to beat. The Grays side the following season could be exciting to watch but were sadly too easy to beat, largely due to Mark Stimpson moving to Stevenage Borough and taking several players with him.
Grays then went through four managers in one season, one of which was chairman and bankroller-in-chief Mick Woodward, before settling on ex-Spurs defender Justin Edinburgh. A rotating hot seat is usually a sign of a club doing its hardest to get relegated and The Blues were no exception, only escaping the drop to the Conference South on the last day of the season.
Fast forward to the present day and the Essex side have found a stability of sorts. Already their season appears to be over. Edinburgh’s side sit 14th in the Blue Square Premier, 17 points off the play-offs and 15 points above the relegation zone. There are far worse sides below them meaning this season should be a lot more comfortable come the end of April, but there’s too many good teams above them for Grays to make a late dash for a top five spot.
In many ways their football reflects this. They can retain possession, they can fashion the odd opening and don’t concede too many but, if Saturday’s game against Exeter was anything to go by, lack any sort of cutting edge or urgency about their play. To contrast with Exeter’s last away trip, Ebbsfleet aren’t pretty but are effective and know how to play to their strengths, even if this is a stereotypical English lower-league long ball game. Grays aren’t pretty and are ineffective. Do they go for high balls, or try and work it through (although, given the state of their pitch, the latter isn’t advisable).
Saturday’s two-nil home loss to Exeter was a game so low on quality, counting the number of windows on the flats built into or around the ground was, on occasions, more entertaining. For those who’ve never been to the the Recreation Ground, firstly don’t if you can help it. Secondly, it resembles a dilapidated student halls of residence with a piece of grass next door. The pitch looks incredibly narrow and the goal is practically in the away terrace. It is not a ground for the connoisseur.
The game itself was noteworthy only for being largely unnoteworthy. Both sides kicked around a mixture of hoofball and attempted passing for the first twenty minutes before Grays decided the best way to make the game more interesting was to stop defending, and so a left-wing cross found its way to Exeter winger Wayne Carlisle and, from a tight angle, he crashed a shot passed a very limp attempt at a save from Ross Flitney . Carlisle almost managed a second later in the half from an even tighter angle but was denied by the crossbar.
The goal was the cue for the Grays defence, including former Exeter centre half Santos Gaia, to go into mass panic mode. Seven minutes later a reasonably aimless punt saw Jamie Stuart and Flitney, both under no real pressure, conspire to make an absolute hash of dealing with the ball, with Stuart poking the ball towards his own net. Exeter striker Adam Stansfield tapped in from one yard just to make sure and increase his goal tally in the process.
From then on we were back to a turgid midfield battle. Grays managed one chance in the first half when Aaron O’Connor found himself with space to produce a fine tip-over from Andy Marriott in the Exeter goal.
Marriott provided one of the few moments of quality in the second half as well, when a neat chip saw him scrambling back and managing to get a hand to a ball that looked for all the world as if it was heading towards the back of the net.
Later in the game, Exeter left-back George Friend found himself unmarked after yet more poor Grays defending from a corner but with a clear sight at goal, fired over. There was also some pingball in the Grays area in the last five minutes, but by that stage chilly fans on both sides had already been willing the final whistle for at least ten minutes.
When the referee finally put everybody out of their misery Exeter could celebrate a comfortable if uninspiring victory that nonetheless keeps them high in the form table and with Cambridge, Burton, and especially Stevenage all looking far from convincing in their play-off positions, the Grecians could well find themselves in the top five, possibly as high as third, come 5pm this Saturday.
As for Grays, it’s difficult to see where they go from here. There has been talk of relocating to a new ground but it’s difficult to understand why such a move would be needed. The ‘New’ Rec has undergone a fair bit of redevelopment while crowd numbers occasionally make it above a thousand, but not often. With many Grays fans also West Ham fans, it’s still worrying that the club can only attract 1,089 for the Exeter game (and past fixtures between the two teams have largely been entertaining affairs) when the Hammers don’t have a match on.
Grays are also reliant on the deep pockets of their chairman Mick Woodward, who has come in for criticism from some quarters recently. Should he decide enough is enough, the Blues would plummet down the non-league pyramid much faster than they climbed.
With the Blue Square Premier getting a stronger, tighter league with every season, teams like Grays are at risk of getting sucked downwards, especially with several hungry, ambitious clubs in the two regional leagues below. Fans may want to hang onto the memories of the Stimpson years. On current form, that’s about as good as they’ll get.
[On a slight tangent, if you’ve got this far do spend a bit of time to read 200 per cent’s piece about St. Albans City, relegated to the Conference South last season. It’s really rather good.]
 Interesting fact – his almost as prolific strike partner is Craig Mackail-Smith, who was signed from Dagenham and Redbridge last season, which shows there are gems to be had among the lower leagues.
 Manchester United fans may remember Flitney. He was the recipient of the quickest ever red card at Old Trafford for handling the ball outside his area less than two minutes into the game.