Pic: Phil Duncan
AS Grays Athletic lifted the FA Trophy just over ten years ago, the unmistakable bellow from chairman Mick Woodward registered loud and clear.
“This is just the start,” screamed the energetic millionaire at Upton Park, whose pennies and pounds had funded the club’s ascent up the Non-League ladder, eventually to within two wins of a place in the Football League.
The unfashionable east London backstreets had never seen anything like it. But ten years on, the likelihood is they won’t ever again.
Gone is the money Woodward’s empire ploughed in, and gone are Grays Athletic. Homeless and with no immediate sign of a return home, the club have gone from the Conference to the Ryman North, sharing with Aveley.
Those who said it would never last may be laughing and full of I-told-you-so’s, but Jamie Stuart – there when they held the Trophy aloft at the home of West Ham United – is ready to prove the doomsday predictions wrong.
“It’s different now, clearly,” said Stuart, one of Non-League football’s most recognised faces following spells at Rushden & Diamonds, AFC Wimbledon, Sutton United and more recently Margate.
“The club has been through the wringer but it’s still here and still standing. We were relegated last season but there’s a feeling there’s a fresh start now.
“It was great to be a part of things the first time around. We won the Trophy twice and it seemed the club was heading in only one direction.
“But this is the here and now and although it’s been a difficult few years we believe there’s good reason to be optimistic about next season.”
It’s just over a year ago since Stuart accepted the job of trying to keep the Blues in the Ryman Premier.
“I wouldn’t go as far as saying it was a shambles when I came in, but it wasn’t great,” said Stuart, a no-nonsense centre-half who wore his heart on his sleeve.
“At the end of July last season, I had five players, and they were all from trials. I wasn’t told what my budget would be until August – those were the kind of problems as a club we were battling with.
“I missed out on signing so many players as, understandably, they couldn’t wait and wanted proper answers. We were on a hiding to nothing in a lot of ways and maybe it wasn’t so much of a surprise that we found ourselves in the bottom three.”
Now in the Ryman North, Stuart has more solid foundations to build upon.
“It’s been a good close season so far,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming to get ourselves into this position and we don’t want to waste the stability that we’ve got.
“Our budget is actually bigger than what we had to work with last season and the level of players we’re able to attract has so far been strong.
“We’re not going to be able to be in a position to announce one or two of the players we’ve agreed terms with until pre-season begins, but there’s a real confidence about the club again – it’s totally different from what everyone was feeling last year.
“A lot of hard work has gone in to get us here but the main aim has always been to get the club’s fans happy again and to make sure they want to come and watch their team play on Saturdays and Tuesday.”
Signing this week are goalkeeper Nicky Eyre, the former Grays keeper in their heyday, and ex-fan favourite striker Jamie Slabber. Barry Cogan, the midfielder who made nearly 150 appearances for Dover, has also agreed to play for Stuart next season and so has towering centre-back Perry Dunn.
Pacey wide player Kiernan Hughes-Mason, 25, is also on board from Hastings United– so can Grays fans expect a promotion push?
“We would like to think it’s possible,” Stuart added. “We’re in a good place right now and if you compare the club to this time last year it’s a million miles away.”