The descent of Grays Athletic
Posted by John Beech on May 28, 2010
As I said in my last blog post Appendix E: Tough Love for Salisbury City?, Grays Athletic face a rather worse fate rather than straightforward relegation to the Conference South. It’s a depressing tale, and one can’t help feeling it was an accident waiting to happen to a club.
The club had faced and survived a crisis at the beginning of the eighties. In 1981 they seemed to have achieved a significant measure of stability when, as it still says on the club website (1 ) as I write, “the Club Patron, Mr. Ron Billings, ensured the future of Grays Athletic at the Rec by purchasing the ground“. What it doesn’t mention is that Ron Billings and his family were property developers (oh dear, you can almost guess at this point the way this is going to go).
Shortly after this, new management came in, and the club started to make progress. In 1983 however, a fire destroyed the main stand, but again benefactor Ron Billings stepped in, building the Ball Court Complex which included Dressing Rooms, Club Room and Bar (2).
In 1990 a new 20-year lease was signed and all still looked well, but it is the coming to an end of this lease that has precipitated the current crisis. It needs pointing out though that the club has had twenty years to prepare a ‘plan B’ in case the lease was not renewed.
Ten years ago Micky Woodward appeared on the scene. He’s a difficult man to summarise – ‘eccentric’ springs to mind, as does ‘inconsistent’. For example, in 2003 he tried to buy Peterborough United (3), but, having failed, turned Grays into the first club beyond the Conference to be full-time (4).
As Chairman/Director of Football Woodward has had, well, unusual relationships with his managers. At the end of May 2006 Woodward recruited Frank Gray as manager (5), only to sack him five months later (6) and to take on the managerial role himself (7). “Why pay someone else to run the club when I can do it?” as he put it. Three weeks later he seemed to have found the answer to this rhetorical question, appointing Andy King as manager (8).
By the end of 2006 Woodward had started to address the issue of a stadium lease due to run out in 2010. It was reported that Woodward had an option to buy the New rec from the Billings family, and would sell it fund a new 5,000 capacity stadium nine miles away (9). Given the density of football clubs, all with strong local identities, it is perhaps not surprising that reaction was at best mixed. In preparing these plans, Woodward felt that Thurrock Council had not been very supportive (10).
Shortly afterwards Woodward appointed manager Gary Hill as Director of Football (11), only to announce three hours later that Hill had changed his mind (12). A few days later he had to admit that in fact he had withdrawn the offer to Hill rather than Hill withdrawing his acceptance of the post (13).
Woodward has over the last few years faced opposition and abuse from fans, never courting cheap popularity. These confrontations led on one occasion to Woodward even threatening to take the club back to the Essex Senior League (14), a threat which has unfortunate resonances today.
By November 2007, sites were still under consideration for a new stadium, but there was talk of temporary ground-sharing (15) as the clock ticked on.
In February 2008 it was again ‘goodbye’ to a manager (Justin Edinburgh this time) and Woodward, obviously forgetting the answer to his previous rhetorical question, took over again as manager (16), even planning a long stay in the post (17). In September he again reacted to criticism from fans, announcing that he was putting the club up for sale (18).
At the start of the following season players were forced to take a pay cut following the withdrawal of sponsorship (19), and players were allowed to leave (20). Woodward was reported as saying the club “would have ceased to exist within six months without drastic financial cutbacks” (21). Following a succesful Cup run, the wages were however paid (22). As the season progressed, players were nonetheless released (23).
At the start of this season Woodward stepped down as Chairman and Chief Executive, but remained a director (24), again citing fan abuse, although not offering a considered analysis of the causes of the abuse. Since then there have been a number of changes at board level, Andy Swallow being progressively described as Deputy Chairman, Chairman and most recently owner.
Attempts at interim ground-sharing all seem to have come to nought, and the club has found itself facing the drop not into the Conference South, and not even into Isthmian League, the Football Association declining to allocate the club a place there.
What will happen remains distinctly unclear. An appeal has been launched with the FA against the decision to place them in Step 5 (25), but without a ground there seems a very real possibility that no team will be turning out season. A newly formed Supporters Trust, GAFC 1890, has weighed into the battle, but they have arrived late and face an almighty upward battle. The Billings family had previously offered to put £700,000 towards the cost of new ground, but time is running out.
Grays Athletic offers not only evidence of the flaws in the benefactor model, but also the dangers of the separation of stadium ownership from club ownership. Let us hope lessons are learned, and, with a will, and a massive dash of luck, they will not have been learned to late at Grays.
[The situation at Grays is complex and apparently subject to rapid change. It has not been widely reported other than in the local press. Any factual input as comments from informed observers on developments would be appreciated.]
Mixed news for Grays. They have won their appeal against effective demotion to the Essex Premier League, and should now start in the Isthmian Premier League (1). While this solves one problem, it complicates the issue of where they will groundshare (2).
The bad news is that the club has been served with a winding-up petition by HMRC (3).