Following Grays Athletic since 1958 makes it an extremely challenging, but rewarding task to pick my First X1. To help me a little, I have limited my choices to our “Isthmian Years” 1983 – 2004 and 2010 to the current day, although it would have been nice to include our six Conference seasons in between.
I reckon we’ve played about 1,800 games over the 32 years and I have seen probably 98% of them.
So, here goes, with the players in a very fluid, 3-4-1-2 formation.
BARRIE DELF, GOALKEEPER
Barrie was a gentle giant, with a great command of his area and a massive kick from his hand and a dead ball. He was born in Rochford and played one League game for Southend United before moving across the water to Dartford, under Peter Taylor. He signed for us in August 1987 when he was 26, played 300 games and kept 95 clean sheets. He appeared in our shirt for every competitive game in the 1987-98, 1988-89 and 1989-90 seasons and finished his playing career with us with a clean sheet in a 1-0 win against Sutton United in May 1994.
STEVE WARD, DEFENDER, RIGHT SIDE
The 1972 born defender sent a letter to the club when he was 16 and asked for a trial. He wrote to other clubs, but only Grays responded! He made his debut on 7 March 1989, when our injury-ravaged side beat much fancied Leytonstone/Ilford 1-0 in an Essex Senior Cup Semi-Final tie. He kept his place in the Final, where we were edged out 3-2 by Chelmsford City. He became a regular member of the team from the 1990-91 season until October 1996, when he was tempted to join Canvey Island for a £3,000 fee and became known as the “Ginger Sex God”, a reference to the articles he wrote in their Match Day programmes. He was a no-nonsense defender who often chose “Row Z” when under pressure, to the delight of the neighbours on the Grange Road side of our ground, who must have made a decent business out of selling used footballs!
JAY LEADER, DEFENDER, CENTRAL
A cultured central defender, who joined us from our landlords, Aveley in August 2014, where he was voted Fans’ and Players’ Player of the Year in the previous season. Jay played 56 games in his first season and was one of the best centre-halves in the Isthmian Premier Division. He played another 32 games by 9 January 2016, but accepted a playing and coaching role at Cray Wanderers. He is still a pillar in their defence as they look to progress to National League football at their new stadium.
LEE FLYNN, DEFENDER, LEFT SIDE
Lee joined in August 2011 in the twilight of his career at 37. He was made captain of the side by new manager, Hakan Heyrettin, who had previously recruited him at Thurrock FC. What a signing he proved to be, playing 125 games in three seasons, including 43 in our 2012-13 Division One North team that garnered 102 points for the Championship. He also played another 35 time in his last season in 2013-14, combining playing with the assistant manager’s role. A leader of men who was as fit as any member of the squad, some of whom were half his age.
PHIL SAMMONS, MIDFIELD, FRONT SCREEN
Our all-time record appearance player – 748 – from the 1982-83 season to 1996-97. Phil joined us for our promotion year to the Isthmian League from the Athenian League in 1982, and helped us to two more promotions in 1984-85 and 1987-88 when we managed 100 points, beat the Champions, Marlow, home and away, but lost out to them by one point for the Championship. A true club man who now watches his son, Ryan, playing in a Grays shirt.
STUART THURGOOD, MIDFIELD, CENTRAL
Stuart, an outstanding player and captain for us in our Conference years, just got in to my best Isthmian X1 as he joined us in July 2003. He played 51 games in 2003-04, scoring nine goals. He helped us achieve a sixth-place finish and promotion to the new Conference South. Probably the most tenacious player I have seen in a Grays shirt. He went on lead us to consecutive F A Trophy wins in 2005 and 2006, promotion to the Conference National and beaten semi-finalists in the play-offs in 2006. He would captain my all-time best team.
GLEN LITTLE, MIDFIELD, IN THE DIAMOND
Glen was only with us for two brief spells in the twilight of his career in a player/coach/assistant manager role, making 17 starts and 38 cameo appearances from the bench in seasons 2014-15 and 2015-16. He could see his next pass before he received the ball and must have been born with the picture of a football pitch in his head. I would have loved to watch him in his pomp at Burnley and Reading. I also recall a solo goal before he joined us for Wealdstone which oozed class.
NICKY CROWN, WINGER, RIGHT SIDE
Nicky was a mercurial, goalscoring, will-o’-the-wisp winger. He followed his elder brother, David, to the club, joining us in 1979, but moved on in 1981 to Isthmian Leaguers, Leytonstone-Ilford and also played for Dartford and Barking, before returning to a Grays team on the up in 1987. In all, he played over 350 games and score 110 goals. He helped us to an Isthmian League Cup win, four Essex Thameside Trophy wins, the Essex Senior Cup and Mithras Cup. Fittingly, in his last match for the club against Basingstoke Town at home in May 1993, he scored a brace in our 3-2 victory, an apt end for such a talented player.
MICKY WELCH, STRIKER, CENTRAL
He joined us for our debut season in the Isthmian League and was my favourite player of the 1980s - a real cult hero at the club. He was a big man, with pace to burn, who frightened defences with his strong running and lethal finishing. He scored 148 goals in 216 appearances from 1983 to 1988. Apart from his goals and lovely personality, many of us will remember Micky for sometimes arriving late to join the coach for an away game. We would be at the Brentwood Post House (now the Holiday Inn) – players, management and supporters – waiting patiently – and then a bit impatiently. He usually made it and it was always worth the wait as he would casually board the coach with some feeble excuse and then go on to score the winner later that afternoon!
TONY MAHONEY, STRIKER, CENTRAL
Tony arrived at Grays in July 1985 after he left the professional game. He started at Fulham where he made his League debut at 17 in November 1976, at that time their second youngest debutant and also played for Northampton, Brentford and Crystal Palace. He formed a lethal central attacking partnership with Micky Welch, which was regarded as one of the most feared in non-league football at that time. He helped us gain promotion to the Premier Division in 1987-88, a season when we also won the Essex Senior Cup and Essex Thameside Trophy, where he scored both goals in an extra-time victory over arch-rivals, Tilbury. He had the hardest dead-ball kick I have ever seen and scored 87 goals during his four seasons with us.
JOAO CARLOS, WINGER, LEFT SIDE
Joao is the current club “legend”. He has played 416 games in two spells, scoring 110 goals, although 39 appearances were in the fateful 2019-20 “season” and four in 2020-21, with eighteen of his goals coming in the truncated 2019-20 campaign. He was 22 when he joined us in 2011, another of Hakan Heyrettin’s key signings who had played for him at Thurrock FC in the previous season. I saw his first training session in that pre-season of 2011. He was tricky and fast and rather spindly legged and I wondered whether he would cope with rigours of non-league football. He is still tricky and fast but has added body muscle, adding more strength and power to his game. How wrong could I have been? The most popular player in our current squad who always has time to talk to supporters.
Right, let’s have your First XI! Email your squad to Ian at email@example.com and you’ll see it appear here.