After bowing out of the 2014/15 FA Cup in the Third Qualifying Round, courtesy of a 5-0 replay thumping by Conference South champions, Bromley, Grays Athletic have gone through managerial changes, a revolving door policy for players, cup finals, play-off near misses and more – as well as becoming viral sensations.
Just 113 people were present at Mill Field on a cold Wednesday night in March, as Mark Bentley, the ex-Gillingham stalwart, sent the name of Grays around the world during a Ryman Premier League game with Hampton & Richmond.
The game finished 3-2 to the home side, but that doesn’t tell half the story. In the 39th minute, with the score goalless, an injury to Jay Leader turned the tide in the opposition’s favour, as they netted twice at the end of the half to take a half-time lead. A James Stevens penalty early in the second half gave Grays a lifeline – and started a remarkable comeback.
Bentley, manager of the Essex club, headed in the equaliser halfway through the half. With 13 minutes to go, a clash between Grays’ ‘keeper, Conor Gough, and Richmond player, Charlie Moon, resulted in both seeing red. With no substitute ‘keeper on the bench, it was left to the manager to take up his position between the sticks for the remainder of the game. With nine minutes to go, it looked as though the home sides hard work would be undone, as the away side won a penalty. However, Bentley channelled his inner Gordon Banks, making an unorthodox save to keep the Blues in the game.
Deep into injury time, the comeback was complete, as Joao Carlos curled in a winner, sparking wild celebrations at Mill Field for all those in blue. It was a story that went around the world – Glyn Jarvis, Life President at Grays Athletic, told me how the story unfolded in front of his eyes: ”It was just amazing! We were playing poorly, had an injury to a key player just before half-time and were two-nil down at the break.’
‘We got a penalty and the scorer, James Stevens, probably shouldn’t have been playing, as he was feeling unwell. Mark (Bentley) soon brought James off and took his midfield position. From a corner, Mark rose majestically, as the video shows (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYLc11zWdPM) headed a goal to bring us level. It was ‘game on’, as Hampton were under real pressure. A handbags job between our ‘keeper and their striker saw them both sent off – with no sub ‘keeper on the bench and with no-one rushing to go in goal, Mark donned the gloves.’
‘He only touched the ball about three time in the 20 or so minutes that remained – one touch, off his knee, was a penalty save, taken by a former Grays player, Ben Osman! As if that wasn’t enough, in the last minute, a superb diagonal ball out of defence was taken down beautifully by Joao Carlos and he curled a great strike beyond their distraught keeper. It’s a shame our video man, Kevin James, didn’t earn a penny out of the 600,000 hits on his YouTube video – and neither did the club!”
Viral sensation Bentley had become the manager at Grays due to previous incumbent, Jody Brown, resigning from his post to take up the job at Welling United earlier in the season.
”Jody is a young manager and the job at Grays was his most senior appointment at that stage in his career’ said Glyn. ‘The opportunity came up at Welling in December 2014 and although I believe he would have stayed to try and finish a job he had started with us, he could have regretted not going for a Conference job – he went with our good wishes.’
It didn’t quite work out for Brown at Park View Road, as Glyn went on to tell me…
‘He had a pretty miserable time there and was dismissed after nine games. He has just gone back to Heybridge Swifts in Ryman League Division One, whom he had left to join us. He is clearly a good coach, but I feel he needs to get more ‘man management’ experience before he tries to move up levels again, as most of his time in the game has been at youth level.’
‘Mark was signed by Jody as a player, along with two other Wealdstone players, Glen Little and Jey Siva, in August 2014. Mark was given the caretaker manager role for a short while when Jody left, but was soon appointed manager. He is also involved with the youth set-up at Leyton Orient and he has said that the Grays job is a natural progression for him, as his playing career draws to a close.”
As well as the change at management level, there has been a number of ins and outs at playing level at Mill Field.
‘There was a lot of change when Jody joined in June 2014 and some after he left us in December 2014, but the main squad that Mark put together after that has remained with us, with only a few exceptions. Young centre half, Manny Parry, left to join promoted Maidstone United, where he has already become a stand-out player, whilst goalkeeper, Conor Gough, moved to Concord Rangers, although he has since been released and moved on to Canvey Island. Luis Morrison-Derbyshire became a star of the ‘Love Island’ reality TV programme(!) and a few other fringe players were not offered terms for 2015-16.’
”Keeper Lamar Johnson, who had been vying with Gough for the number one shirt last season, has once again cemented his position back in the first team. Experienced centre half, Sean Cronin, who spent the end of last season with us on loan from Wealdstone, was a major new signing. Other new recruits are young full back, Luke Ifil, joining after being part of the Arsenal and Wolves youth development squads, Roman Michael-Percil, another young winger from Concord Rangers and Alex Addai, a pacey winger, who has joined from Kingstonian. Other young players have also joined the squad to give real competition for places, including flying winger, Lamar Reynolds from Thurrock, defender Gus Douglas, a product of our Under-21 development squad and Tommy Cummings, an accomplished left back, with a professional background at Charlton Athletic.’
‘These players have joined with our regular first-teamers from last season – centre-half, Jay Leader, full-back, Jey Siva, midfielders Kenny Beaney (our club skipper), James Stevens, Nathan Ferguson and Harry Agombar, popular winger, Joao Carlos, strikers Dumebi GB-Dumaka and Bradley Tomlinson. We also have manager Mark Bentley and coach, Glen Little, who can add important experience on – as well as off – the field when required. Two more 18 year-old players joined earlier this month; Mason Bloomfield (striker) and a central midfielder, Montel Agyemang, demonstrating how keen our manager is to have a blend of youth and experience in the expanded squad.”
(As you can see, there’s a lot to take in – so I thought I’d leave that bit to Glyn!)
As mentioned above, Jay Leader is fast becoming one of the Grays’ faithful’s favourite players. The towering centre-half turned down offers from higher up the pyramid to commit to the Essex outfit over the summer – and Glyn is one of many to sing his praises.
”Jay is a superb ball-playing centre-half and very committed to the club. He has become part of a group of players who want to help the club progress. In a press interview before the start of the season, he explained why he turned down a move to Concord Rangers (in the National League South). He said he felt he had unfinished business at Grays, after we narrowly missed out on the play-offs last season. It’s that sort of attitude that is vital to a club like ours, fighting for its survival, without its own ground and very limited sources of funding.”
The Blues finished in sixth position in last seasons Ryman Premier League table, just missing out on the play-offs and a tilt at promotion to the Conference South. When asking Glyn whether he found that fact hard to take or whether he was proud of the team for having such a great season, he said: ”Considering we were two minutes away from the play-offs in the last game, before Met Police got a late winner against already relegated Hornchurch, it was tough!”
‘Having said that, most of us at the club would have settled for sixth after coming 14th in our first season back (2013/14) in the Ryman Premier for 10 years. We were also only in 15th position in December 2014, when Jody Brown left and we went on a very good run in the second half of the season – we were the form team, apart from the champions, Maidstone and second placed Hendon.”
A bright spot in Grays’ season came when they reached the Robert Dyas League Cup Final against Hendon. Having only appeared at that stage once before (a 3-1 win over Enfield in 1992), the Blues took to Whyteleafe’s 3G pitch, hoping to add a second trophy to the cabinet. However, it wasn’t to be, as Hendon took home the cup, winning 3-2.
”It was another hard-fought contest played on Whyteleafe’s 3G pitch, which certainly added to the quality of the game. You don’t see many games at our level in April that are played on a surface with so much grass on it – and an even bounce!’ said Glyn.
‘The 3-2 result was every bit as close as the scoreline suggests, but we gave away a couple of poor goals and despite a nail-biting last ten minutes when we got back to 3-2, it wasn’t quite enough. Our support was more than double our opponents and the game was a credit to the Ryman League, as many neutral observers commented on the night. Wounded pride would best sum up my sentiments.”
Fast forward to this season and Grays Athletic are celebrating their 125th anniversary. The celebrations begun with a 3-0 victory over Southend United in an anniversary friendly and other events are in the pipeline.
”An Essex pre-season derby was a good way to start our 125th season. A win against the new Southend United Under-21 Development Squad was a good way to finish off our preparation for the real thing. It was difficult to find other opponents because we share a ground with Aveley FC and they had their own pre-season plans. There are some other ‘125th’ celebration plans on the social side of the club – a Race Night, Quiz Night, Christmas celebration and an end of season bash that we hope will involve players, supporters and sponsors. Not too many clubs survive as long as we have, especially without a permanent home over the last five years, so we want to make the most of it!”
Grays started the 2015/16 season with a bang, going unbeaten in their first eleven games (nine in the league and two in the cup), but have recently faltered and are without a win in the previous five league games – the last of those being an extremely disappointing 2-0 home defeat to Leatherhead on October 14th. They currently sit just outside the top six – an area that Glyn wants his team to aim for come the end of the season.
”After consolidating our position in the Ryman Premier over the last two seasons, it would be nice to push on. As we finished 6th last season, I suppose that means a minimum of a play-off position. We have lost the two huge spenders – Maidstone and Margate – from last season; it’s a more level playing field this time around.”
Grays have also advanced into the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup – one step from the promised land of Round One. They take on Welling United – a game between the last two clubs of one Jody Brown.
”At our level, an FA Cup run can be a blessing and a curse. The cash generated can allow teams to strengthen, if necessary, for a continued league push, but fixture congestion can complicate a late run for the title. In our situation, we are so dependent on a small group of people to help us make a real challenge for honours. We are delighted to remain in this seasons FA Cup, as we can now meet more of our financial commitments, with a little less input from our club sponsors. But, we can’t plan very far ahead until the new ground position is resolved. In the meantime, we will do the best we can with our limited resources and try and enjoy the journey, wherever it takes us.”
A few pictures from Grays’ recent 0-2 home defeat to Leatherhead are featured below…