Little more than a decade ago the future looked so bright for Grays Athletic. Following two successive promotions the club finished third in the Conference and was narrowly beaten in the play-offs, before winning a second consecutive FA Trophy in front of more than 8000 of their own fans at Upton Park. Yet it didn’t take long for things to begin to go wrong, and by 2009/2010 their world had changed dramatically. The club had resigned from the Conference, and faced the prospect of dropping to the Essex Senior League before an appeal saw them placed into the Isthmian North. Their ground sold, they were forced to share with East Thurrock United, and since then survival has been something of a struggle. Further moves, to Romford and Aveley, have followed, and on the pitch fortunes have also been mixed, with the last campaign ending in relegation from the Bostik Premier. But there is light to go with the shade. Now fan owned there is progress both on and off the field, and a strong belief that it won’t be too long before Grays head back to the town which bears their name.
As the fan ownership scheme approaches its first anniversary, Glyn Jarvis, Vice Chair and Life President of the club and a man who has been there through it all, was good enough to shed some light on the current situation as well as take us through some glorious- and painful- history.
Can you give us an overview of the current situation regarding the running and ownership of Grays- and the role of GAFC1890?
We gained Football Association and Isthmian League approval for the transfer of ownership of the club from the company that previously ran it (Grays Athletic (1982) Ltd) in November 2016, after six months of hard work convincing the FA that we were “fit for purpose” as a Community Benefit Society. We had a share issue which raised enough money to show that the club would be viable for the immediate future.
Grays Athletic win the FA Trophy in 2006
Last season was very difficult, because we only gained approval to run the club mid-way through the season- and despite the best efforts of the players, who were all new to the team, we suffered relegation. This season has shown an improvement on the pitch, but we are unable to compete with the “big spenders” in Bostik North. Without our own ground bringing revenue from a bar and a functions area, and whilst paying to be tenants of another club, we rely on our supporters to provide the money we need to survive in a competitive division.
We have an elected board of seven people who, as directors of the club, have overall responsibility for running the club and a very important supporting group who help to carry out numerous tasks, including fundraising, youth development and the match-day activities at the turnstile as well as the administration.
If I can take you back to 05/06 season: Grays had just been promoted to the Conference National after finishing top of the Conference South. That season would also see you finish third, narrowly missing out on promotion to the Football League and also win the FA Trophy and progress to the Second Round of the FA Cup. It's easy to be wise after the event, but was it obvious to those on the outside that these on-pitch successes were papering over some significant cracks?
First, I must say, it was the most exciting time during my 59-year association with the club. We rose from a being a struggling Isthmian Premier side in 2000, through Conference South as runaway champions and FA Trophy winners in 2005, and then to the play-offs in the Conference the next season, adding another FA Trophy win at West Ham’s Upton Park – the highlight of my years as a “Grays boy” and supporter since 1958. We knew that it couldn’t last without a better infrastructure and less reliance on one person to fund the whole operation. We had been searching for a new ground, knowing that the Recreation Ground, where we had played since 1906, had insufficient space for the non-football activity which we needed to produce the revenue required at that level.
In 08/09 the club saw a withdrawal of sponsorship, and subsequently players had to take a pay cut and many had to leave. Was there a time during this period that the liquidation of the club seemed a real possibility?
I had become a Life-President of the club by this time and wasn’t involved in the day-to-day running of the club, but I was still a shareholder of the company that ran the club at this point. I knew that our owner had loaned the club £750,000, which meant that our ground was brought up to Football League standard in the year we made the Conference play-offs, and there was a risk that when he decided to leave, the club could become insolvent. The owner had always promised me he would not leave the club in debt and, in all fairness to him, he wrote off the loan so at least we were debt-free, but we also knew the lease on the ground was coming to an end and the family who owned the land decided to cash in on their asset and leave us homeless at the end of the 2009-10 season.
Grays at this point in time had a split ownership model: one person owning the club and one family owning the ground. When it became clear that subsequent provision had not been made for the renewal of the lease in 2010, is this when GAFC1890 decided to take action, or was this supporters group already involved in club affairs?
The Supporters’ Trust was formed the year before we lost the ground. I think our club owner realised that without his input, we needed an organisation to financially support the costs and help with the day-to-day running. The Trust was already involved, but the club continued under the limited company ownership and management until 2016, when we sought approval to change the Trust rules to become a 100 per cent supporter-owned and run Community Benefit Society.
After ground sharing with East Thurrock and Aveley for a number of years, you are now working with a local secondary school to have your own purpose-built ground as part of their new school development. How did this plan come about and will there be an academy-style link between the school and football club?
William Edwards Secondary School in Grays has an “Outstanding” Ofsted rating and they were given permission last year to build a new “free school” on an adjacent site to cater for the big increase in demand for secondary school places in the area. They are a school with a strong sporting ethos, who work closely with the nearby Thurrock Rugby Club and Thurrock Harriers Athletics Club. We were aware of their plans and with our determination to relocate back into Grays, we started discussions with them two years ago, when we realised we had some key shared objectives. Adding a community football facility to their planned development fitted in perfectly with their, and our, aspirations.
There has been an unfortunate delay in progressing the scheme, as the local authority land where the buildings were being planned has been earmarked by Highways England as part of their proposed Lower Thames Crossing, linking Essex and Kent via another tunnel crossing the Thames. We hope there will be an announcement shortly that another suitable site in the locality has been acquired.
We certainly plan to work with the school linking sport with educational attainment. Our vision is a “football club in the community” and being based in the school environment is a perfect fit for everyone concerned.
Did you take any inspiration from other fan/community owned teams who found themselves in a similar situation, such as Lewes?
Initially we contacted Supporters Direct, who we knew had helped other clubs in the league to move to supporter ownership. James Mathie, who is their Head of England & Wales and Club Development, gave us contacts at the three clubs in our (then) division who had become supporter-owned – Enfield Town, Lewes and Tonbridge Angels. I made initial approaches to the clubs, who each had their own set of circumstances which led them down the route. They were all extremely helpful (and very complimentary about James, who we then appointed to help us through all the hoops to gain approval to our transfer).
I think it’s fair to say the Lewes success story was inspirational. Their Chairman. Stuart Fuller, was very open with us about the challenges. He didn’t underestimate how difficult their next phase of increasing community awareness would be. They had already suffered a relegation from the Isthmian Premier, but were determined to build on the amazing support they had achieved with over 1,000 people becoming shareholders in their club. They deserve to get back into the Premier Division and are looking good to achieve that this season. Sorry, Stuart – I hope I haven’t put the mockers on you!
Was there any resistance from the FA, Essex County, other clubs or the community to the proposed new fan ownership scheme? Were the FA fully supportive of your application?
We got very good support initially from the Essex County FA and the Isthmian League. They knew our recent history and I would like to think they felt the group of supporters who stepped forward to save the club had the best interests of Grays Athletic at heart.
At national level, the FA had been going through some difficult times and they had lost a number of key staff along the way. Whilst the process of transferring membership from one organisation to another was well-established, we were disappointed that the response times after we had submitted all the financial and administrative details were much slower than we would have liked. Our plan was to be in supporter-ownership by the start of the 2016-17 season, but approval wasn’t given until 30 November 2016, although we felt we had dealt with every issue raised by the FA in good time for an earlier approval. This caused our financial planning for last season to be much less certain that we would have liked. Ultimately, we were very pleased to get across the line and other clubs have been supportive and interested to learn from our experiences.
We have also been very pleased with the response of local businesses, who seem to appreciate the difference between a “private members’ club” which we were and a “not-for-profit” community club now. This a major part of our future planning. Our supporters can’t provide all the funding we need, but we can use their help and contacts through their own work and families to identify businesses who will support us and share our community focus.
Now that the future of Grays is looking more secure, what are the immediate, medium and long term aims of the club?
We have two immediate main priorities and just one for the medium and long-term.
The crucial first step is to secure a new home back in Grays. We hope our work with the school can bring us home and that we receive the support of the local community and the relevant funding agencies to make it happen soon.
We are also determined to develop our youth football and extend it beyond the six teams we currently run below our first team. We have made great strides in the last two years and have been recognised with a Football Foundation “Grow the Game” grant via the FA, to help us. Without a home base, it is impossible to build a complete community model and the proposed new facilities are an essential ingredient to help us achieve our objective here.
The medium and long-term goals are around creating a sustainable club which can play its part in our community. If we get that right, the football will look after itself and we can enjoy playing at the level we can afford without relying on one or two individuals to pay for it.
How can people get involved with ownership in Grays?
That’s a nice easy one to finish on!
Go to our website- www.graysathletic.co.uk- and to the section “GAFC Share Offer” on the front page. This will direct you to a lot of background information and an application form for becoming a member (£30 will cover your share in the club and your first membership covering the latest period to 30 June 2018) and details of how you can also purchase “Community Shares” to support our future development.
Or why not come to one of our home games at Aveley’s new Parkside Stadium? There will always be a volunteer lurking around the turnstile area offering to help and provide information. it could be me trying to sell you a programme, or someone with a stack of raffle tickets to sell, but one of us will gladly give you an application form to complete!
You can follow Ben Lane on Twitter- here.
Headline image courtesy of Peter Jackson at the club website.