I’ve lived in a few rented properties over the years. Every now and then something would need to be fixed or replaced and I’d be straight on the phone to a landlord that usually lived in a different city, county or even country. Grays Athletic, however, clearly have much more reliable landlords than I ever had. When the ‘Beast from the East’ came calling Grays’ landlords Aveley FC assured them everything would be fine. Grays lit the social media beacons, and the community appeared, shovels in hand, to clear the beast’s deposits from the edges of the Parkside pitch.
I, like many others in the vicinity of the Essex groundsharers will be eternally grateful to them all for giving us a game of football to watch, after the beast had abated. It was my second visit to the award winning Parkside - named as Groundtastic’s best new non-league ground for 2017/18. It was my first experience, however, of Grays Athletic. A one-off community owned club, with a fascinating history, that’s using the warm glow of its new ownership model to light the way back to their hometown.
A fan owned club like Grays was never going to struggle to find willing volunteers to help with the job of clearing up after the beast or, for that matter, the job of providing investment. The matchday programme, always the window into a club’s soul, reveals informative transparency into where the club is and what needs to be done, with a few innovate ways of raising some extra cash. My favourite (ever the digital disciple) involves the easyfundraising website that allows fans to earn money for the club as they shop online.
Promotion back into the Bostik Premier is the obvious short term goal, but the real dream is for the club to return to Grays, and take up its rightful place as the community club for the Essex town. The club left their spiritual home at the New Recreation Ground in 2010, having played there for 114 years. They’ve ground-shared nomadically at East Thurrock, the West Ham training ground at Rush Green, and with Aveley at their former home, and now their new one.
Grays’ move away from their home town in 2010 marked an era change for a club that came about as close as it’s possible to come to entering the promised land of the Football League. They started out as Grays Juniors in 1890, before merging with Grays United to form the current club. They were founder members of the Athenian League and Corinthian League, and winners of the latter before joining the Isthmian League structure in 1983.
Grays won Division Two South in 1985 and were runners up in Division One in 1988 and 2000 before a sixth-placed finish in 2004 saw them moved into the newly created Conference South. They flourished in the new division and were crowned its inaugural Champions, earning promotion to the top tier of non-league football. They made the promotion play-offs in their first season and enjoyed back-to-back FA Trophy successes while in the Conference structure. In the non-league world, however, fortunes change in a heartbeat.
League form faded and after finishing bottom of the Conference Premier in 2010 the club resigned, dropped two divisions into the Isthmian League, and most sadly of all said goodbye to their home in Grays. They rallied in 2013 winning Division One North and officially became fan owned in 2016 but were relegated from the Premier Division in 2017.
The club has performed well in their first season back in the Division, sitting in eleventh position prior to kick-off against Bury Town. Their visitors from Suffolk were one point and two places better off. Grays have been difficult to beat in recent times but are drawing too many games. Hopes of promotion this season appear just out of reach. Bury had lost three of their last six games including a 1-0 defeat at Parkside against Aveley. The first meeting of the season between the two sides had ended in a 1-1 draw in December.
251 hardy football fanatics braved the tail end of the beast and surrounded the snow bordered 3G surface at Parkside. The pitch looked as resplendent by day as it had on my Friday night visit in January. The crowd was above Grays average for the season of 209 and clearly contained plenty of fans and associates of other local clubs - who’d had their games called off. I saw AFC Hornchurch and Bowers & Pitsea branded clothing to name but two.
The visitors started the game well and a had a couple of early opportunities. One shot narrowly missed the post causing several of the away fans behind the goal to celebrate as if they’d taken the lead. Grays soon began to find their stride and take control of the game. Bishop got on the end of a long ball on the left hand side, cut in towards goal and drove the ball past the Bury keeper for the opening goal.
Grays doubled their lead a couple of minutes later. Wade freed himself from the attention of the Bury centre back and found Carlos who finished well of the underside of the bar. Grays were now well and truly on top and made the most of their ascendancy. Bishop soon added his second and Grays’ third. Oli got on the end of a Halle free kick and his pass found Bishop in front of goal and he calmly rolled the ball past the Bury keeper.
Ramadan, Bury’s top scorer, had a couple of good chances late in the second half. His first was brilliantly saved by Johnson and the second just missed the post after the striker was clean through. The forward did manage to find the net, however, in the second half and reduced the arrears. He found space and finished well to give the visitors a chance.
Bury had some good periods of play in the second half, but they struggled to create too many more opportunities. Grays adjusted their tactics slightly and were able to hold on to the lead they’d established in the first half. The home side created a couple of good chances towards the end, but the scoreline remained 3-1.
Grays were worthy of the win that lifted themselves above Bury, into ninth. Off the pitch they are equally worthy, their community spirit clearly visible whether it be on the trestle table by the entrance or the transparency of the club programme. It looks as though plans to move back to Grays are progressing, albeit slowly, but for the time being they share an award winning venue with a hospitable and proactive landlord.