Neil Grayson was still playing for Glapwell when he turned 50 in 2014 – Pic Media Image
Neil Grayson was 33 when Steve Cotterill signed him for Cheltenham Town in the spring of 1998.
“And he looked older,” laughs the former Nottingham Forest, Stoke City and Burnley boss. “But age has never bothered me.
“I signed Graham Alexander for Burnley at 36. Wade Elliott and Aaron Wilbraham for Bristol City. People talk about taking a risk, but if you get an older pro who looks after himself the way Neil did, it isn’t a risk at all. I’d watched Grays play for six months before we got him and I knew he had a lot left in the tank.”
That, of course, is an understatement. Grayson, who’d begun his career at Northern Counties East League side Rowntree Mackintosh in the mid-eighties, scored 48 goals in 162 games as the Robins soared from the Conference to League One.
At 41, he netted against Droylsden as Stafford Rangers won the Conference North play-off final – one of 54 goals in four memorable years at Marston Road.
And the Yorkshireman was still going a decade later, scoring for Glapwell on his 50th birthday, playing alongside his son and even spending eight games in goal.
“It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do and it’s all I ever have done,” said Grayson when he finally retired in 2015. “For me, there’s no better feeling in the world than playing football on a Saturday afternoon.”
Like many blessed with extraordinary longevity, Grayson was a late bloomer. Though he’d flirted with the pro game at Doncaster Rovers, York City and Chesterfield, his career didn’t truly ignite until a move to Northampton Town – aged 29 – in 1994.
A cult hero who scored 31 times in 120 games, he was part of the legendary side that won promotion to the third tier under Ian Atkins, and equally revered at both Hereford United, where he spent the 1997-98 campaign, and Cheltenham.
Grayson, who has four sons, once said he was “fortunate” to be popular. “It makes it a bit easier if you have a bad game,” he said. It was, though, an affection earned through sweat and toil.
Waspish, aggressive and utterly indomitable, Grayson played, in the words of Cotterill, “like every game was his last”.
“There was never a lost cause with Neil Grayson in the team,” adds the 55-year-old. “As soon as that ball crossed the halfway line, he was totally, totally committed. That’s the way he approached everything – his running, his shooting, his tackling. Even his training sessions. He wasn’t the biggest of lads. Probably only about 5ft 10ins. But his bravery, his strength and his will to win was incredible.”
Kevin Street was a teammate at Stafford, whom Grayson joined in 2004 after two years at Forest Green Rovers. Like Cotterill, he remembers a man both fearsome and fearless.
“Grays would put his head where other people wouldn’t put their feet,” says the former Crewe Alexandra, Bristol Rovers and Shrewsbury Town midfielder. “He was brave as a lion.”
“We’d play against teams and you’d see these 6ft 4ins centre-halves thinking ‘Oh no, Grayson’s playing’.
“At that level, defenders are always trying to do you. Elbows, studs down the calf, all that sort of stuff. With Neil, they had no chance. He’d just get up again.
“He wasn’t a dirty player. He was a lovely bloke. But he was committed. If that ball was there and he only had a ten percent chance of winning it, he’d go for it with total intent.
“If he missed it, he might headbutt the defender in the face. He might end up in bandages. But he’d do exactly the same thing next ball. After a while, those defenders would go ‘I don’t fancy this’. It became our identity as a team, and he led the charge.”
Yet Grayson was no blunt instrument. His career was peppered with important goals and spectacular strikes, the most famous a 30-yard volley for Cheltenham against Plymouth in his final season at Whaddon Road.
Neil Grayson in action for Cheltenham Town
“When he caught it with that left foot, wow,” adds Cotterill. “His power was incredible and he had the strongest thighs I’ve ever seen. They were huge. When he took a penalty I’d look at the goalkeeper and think ‘You’re not saving this, mate’. He used to absolutely smash the ball in.”
Fitness, too, was a defining characteristic. Rarely injured and perpetually sprinting, Grayson was still a regular starter for Glapwell and Carlton Town well beyond his 45th birthday.
“I remember once, he got sandwiched between two players, landed on his neck and had to be taken away in an ambulance,” laughs Street. “That’s what it took to get him off the pitch!”
“He was so fit, even in his forties. He made double-glazed windows for a job, so he was constantly stretching, crouching and using his muscles.
“Apart from sugary drinks, his food intake was great. And he never drank alcohol, which is probably the single biggest reason he went so long. It’s certainly no fluke.”
Grayson retired with well over a thousand games on his record, the exact total impossible to ascertain due to his many years in the amateur ranks. Incredibly, over 700 of those came after his 30th birthday.
“It’s remarkable, and completely deserved,” says Cotterill. “He was a great lad, and a pivotal signing for me. And you know, if Neil was around these days, I think he would play a lot higher up the pyramid. Because there are just so few of his type left today.”
Neil Grayson Factfile
Born: York, 1964 (Age 55)
A striker, Grayson played in amateur football until the age of 25 before short stints at Doncaster, York, Chesterfield and Gateshead followed. A move to Boston United in 1992 yielded 31 goals in 80 games.
Grayson returned to the EFL with Northampton in 1994, scoring 31 league goals and winning the Division Three play-off final in his final game. He then helped Hereford finish sixth in the Conference in 1997-98 before being sold for £15,000 to Cheltenham.
Grayson scored 48 goals in 162 games as Cheltenham won the Conference in 1999, then promotion to the third tier in 2002. In that time, Grayson was named Non-League player of the Year.
Released in 2002, Grayson spent two seasons at Forest Green before joining Stafford Rangers in 2004, where he later had a stint as player-manager.
After four years and 54 goals at Marston Road, Grayson joined Glapwell and would later play for Carlton Town, Heanor Town and and Sutton Town before retiring, aged 50, in 2015.
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