By Matt Badcock
MARTIN GRAY admits being told Darlington couldn’t compete in last season’s National League North play-offs left him questioning his long-term future as manager – and meant that when York City offered him their job it was the right time to take a new challenge.
York axed Gary Mills last Saturday just hours after they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Step 4 South Shields, and quickly moved to appoint Darlo boss Gray as his successor the following day.
It’s been a tumultuous couple of seasons for the Minstermen. Despite lifting the FA Trophy at Wembley in May, it came on the back of a second successive relegation as they tumbled out of the Football League and straight through the National League to Step 2.
Gray, who arrives at Bootham Crescent with new sporting director Dave Penney, feels the time was right for him to move on from Darlington after five years.
The former Sunderland midfielder was the club’s first ever manager after they reformed as Darlington 1883 from the ashes of the previous club.
Starting in the Northern League, they won three promotions and reached two play-offs. But last season they were barred from competing in the National League play-offs because their new Blackwell Meadows home didn’t have the required number of seats to meet ground-grading requirements.
Gray, 46, who led calls for the club to accept outside investment to progress, says that hit him hard – but he won’t let it overshadow a remarkable five years in charge.
“I took a club from nothing – no team, no players – and I’ve dragged us through the leagues,” he told The NLP. “And I mean dragged us through because it’s been a real, real challenge. A journey – three promotions and two play-offs in five seasons.
“It’s been great, but a lot of hard work went in and I’m really, really proud of where the club is. It wasn’t just me; the management team that came in to help me gave stability. They’ve had to keep reinventing the wheel every 12 months on the back of promotions. Players in, players out, players in, players out. We’ve done that for the last five years.
“There’s been a massive turnover of players to get us where they are today. That takes a lot of energy.
“When we got to the play-offs last year and the club didn’t meet the league rules for the seats, that really kicked me under.
“I was very, very disappointed. It was at that stage I really considered, ‘Which is the right way to go forward now?’
“But listen, Darlington’s given me unbelievably fond memories and I’m very grateful to be given the opportunity because it’s very close to my heart. I’ve been there 15 years, on and off since 2000. It’s a result I will be looking out for at quarter to five Saturday, every Saturday, for as long as I’m a football person.”
Gray returned to Darlington to sign England C defender David Ferguson and striker Mark Beck could follow, although an approach for keeper Adam Bartlett was knocked back.
And the York boss says promotion has to be the aim this season.
“They’ve got a fantastic chairman, who absolutely deserves better than what he’s got,” Gray said. “He’s put everything into this club, everything. When I had the chance to speak to him it didn’t take any convincing. It wasn’t about the money, it was about the opportunity to try and give something back to the city.
“I’ve said to the boys, ‘We are where we are. It’s a fresh start for me, for you. I’ll judge you on the training ground. You’ve got to give me everything, I’ll give you everything and if you don’t, we won’t work’.
“I’ve always worked by that rule. We’re not here to play around. We’re professional people and you’ve got to make sure when you go out to train or play, you’ve got to give everything to me. I won’t accept anything but that.”
Darlington initially appointed Brian Atkinson and Sean Gregan as Gray’s replacement but just four days later they stepped down after a conflict of interests fell foul of FA rules.
Atkinson is also a director of the Martin Gray Football Academy (MGFA) so he chose to leave Darlington in order to keep that role.
Gregan, who according to the Northern Echo was offered a six-month contract to be sole manager but turned it down because he too would have to leave his role at MGFA, has also left.
First-team players Gary Brown and Phil Turnbull have been placed in temporary charge while the club look for a long-term appointment.
*This article originally featured in the @NonLeaguePaper, which is available every Sunday.