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Gray day gives Essex the blues

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It’s a familiar story. Disgruntled fans give abuse to a chairman who’s ploughed vast sums of money into the club, causing said chairman to reach the end of his teather and announce his intention to sell up as soon as possible.

But this isn’t the story of the Toon Army versus Mike Ashley. Instead, we turn to Essex and Grays Athletic, where owner-cum-chairman-cum-manager Mick Woodward finally decided enough was enough.

Following their 3-1 defeat at fellow strugglers Woking, Woodward quit as team manager, handing over duties to coach Tim O’Shea, while announcing his intention to sell the club. However, this isn’t the first time the Grays supremo has threatened to walk away or taken the club to the brink, and for fans of the Essex club it’s just another loop in the Grays rollercoaster of the past few seasons.

Doing the double

Woordward has overseen some of the most successful moments in Grays’ history since he assumed control in 2000 when the club were in the Isthmian League. Woodward set about ploughing money and ambition into the club but it took a few seasons before he found a successful formula when he appointed Mark Stimson as player-manager in 2002.

Stimson’s first season was a battle against relegation but at the start of the 03/04 season Woordward took the decision to go full-time and the club set about recruiting one of the strongest squads ever seen in the Conference South, and in Freddie Eastwood they signed a deadly striker who scored 37 goals and earned himself a move to Southend United. That year’s sixth place finish was followed by the double of the title and the FA Trophy, defeating Conference National sides Burton and Exeter along the way to the silverware.

Grays’ first season in the Conference featured a squad that was, in truth, too good for the division. Assembled at some cost, there was no Eastwood, but Aaron McLean, Michael Kightly, Dennis Oli and Stuart Thurgood were a class above many other sides and Stimson’s side retained the FA Trophy. But towards the end of the season Grays couldn’t keep their good form up and finished third, before going down to Halifax Town in a dramatic playoff semi-final.

It would have been interesting to see how Stimson’s Grays would have got on in the football league, but instead that was the peak of the Essex side’s climb up the football pyramid. Stimson left to take over at Stevenage and McLean was snapped up by Peterborough, while Kightly had long-since departed to tear up Championship defences at Wolves.

What happened next season was a classic example of instability as the Blues went through no fewer than four managers in one season. First up was ex-Scotland international Frank Gray who lasted a few months before being sacked after an FA Cup defeat to Bromley. Woodward himself briefly took up the reigns before appointing Andy King as manager.

King lasted just a handful of weeks before resigning, leaving his assistant Justin Edingburgh the task of avoiding relegation back to the Conference South, which was only achieved on the final day of the season, after no fewer than 50 players were used in the campaign. Edingurgh didn’t last though, and midway through the season, with the Blues 14th in the table, he was relieved of his duties and Woodward appointed himself as manager yet again.

When skies go grey

Woodward has never been a shy and retiring owner and his mouth is often big as his ambition for the club. There’s been no doubting his dedication to the Grays’ cause since he took over and has invested plenty of cash in the club. Nonetheless, he’s also been notoriously temperamental during his time at the helm and there’s a small section of the Grays crowd that have never quite taken to him, and it’s this section of the fan base that’s caused Woodward to call it a day.

For the Grays owner, matters came to a head at the weekend, following the sale of striker Danny Kedwell to AFC Wimbledon. Woodward says the player asked for a move as he wanted to return to part-time football, so the club were obliged to sell him. According to a statement on Grays’ website, some supporters contacted the media alleging Woodward had pocketed the cash from the Kedwell deal, along with several other transfers.

Woodward was incensed and said: “Since I came to the club in 2000 I have taken the bull by the horns and put my heart and soul as well as hard cash into this club, if anyone doubts the amount that has been invested they can obtain details from Companies House which will show exactly how much is owed to my company.

“If you look at the crowds that we are getting you can see that someone has to make up the shortfall that is why I have been looking for and agreeing deals with, sponsors to assist with this deficit.

“I personally have not taken a penny out of this club and to have certain sections of Grays Athletic supporters accusing me and my family of taking money from the club disgusts me and I am now getting to the end of my tether.”

Following further abuse at Grays’ 3-defeat away at Woking it appears Woodward decided enough was enough and immediately quit as manager and put the club up for sale, but pledged the club would fulfill the rest of their fixtures this season.

It’s not the first time Woodward has threatened to withdraw his cash and walk away from the club – most recently last spring when several defeats left Grays too close to the drop zone for comfort – and there’s no doubt the Essex side would seriously struggle financially without the businessman’s money.

Last season, due to a row with the FA over the wages of jailed ex-player Ashley Sestanovich, Woodward took the club to the brink saying he’d rather see the club expelled from the Conference than give money to the player, who’d been convicted of helping an armed robbery. While Woodward’s moral stance drew support, many were uneasy about his willingness to see the club thrown out of the league to prove his point.

He’s also been frustrated by efforts to find a new home for Grays with the New Rec in need of serious work done around the ground. Earlier this year Woodward announced Grays would be moving into a 7,500 capacity stadium just over five miles away in Thurrock but this has now been changed to the Blackshots area of Grays.

What happens to these stadium plans, and the rest of the club, if Woodward goes is unclear. For the time being, he says he remains committed to finding Grays a new home, while the owners of the Rec Ground – the Billings family – have stated they’re happy for the area to be sold for development.

But Woodward’s departure, or drawn-out exit at least, places the club in somewhat of a state of limbo. For every fan who dislikes their now-former manager, there’s a Grays supporter who appreciates that the club wouldn’t be where they are today without the businessman’s money, while results under Woodward are slightly better than they were under Edinburgh.

But quite who would want to take on an Essex club that’s treading water at the lower end of the Blue Square Premier and in need of money for a new stadium is another question – and if no backer is forthcoming don’t be surprised to see Woodward come back into the frame. What effect this will have on the club remains to be seen, but skies are currently grey rather than blue over Essex.

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