In the last five years Nick Gray has become a familiar face at FA Vase holders Morpeth Town, but now he is ready to take a step into the unknown.
Following the Highwaymen’s 2-0 Northern League win at West Allotment Celtic on Friday night, it was announced that Gray would be leaving his role at the club, as he takes up a grassroots coaching position in China.
The move brings to an end a rewarding spell in charge of the club, with a promotion, an eye-catching FA Cup run and a historic FA Vase win on his list of achievements at the club.
That is all a far cry from the club that Gray walked into during the summer of 2011.
The previous season had seen the Highwaymen finish bottom of the Northern League Division Two table, after winning only four of their thirty eight games, conceding 145 goals in the process.
They finished eight points behind Brandon United, the team that finished second from bottom.
Gray set to work, overhauling the Highwaymen squad alongside assistant manager Jon McDonald, now manager of league rivals North Shields.
The turnaround in form was almost unheard of.
The improvement on the previous season was a total of fifty nine points and sixteen league positions.
Even the goals against column came down by a massive 91 goals!
Although they just missed out on a remarkable promotion, it was to be achieved in Gray’s second season at the club, as they sneaked into the Northern League’s top tier with a marginally better goal difference than Jarrow Roofing.
The progress continued, new faces arrived including new joint-manager Dave Malone (pictured right) and senior players Keith Graydon and Chris Swailes.
The improvement culminated in their historic FA Vase Final win over overwhelming favourites Hereford FC.
Gray now leaves the club in a better place, a far better place than it was in when he first arrived.
And the departing joint-manager described them as “stepping in the right direction”.
He said “It’s been a great time for me. I have matured as a coach, as a person and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. This is a wonderful club and it means a lot to me.
“It is in a big place now and I believe they are able to compete at a high level.
“We have always had good teams but this season our squad is stronger. If someone is missing we have one or two players to come in and take their place. We haven’t always had that.
“It has been hard work, I am in my sixth year and I can honestly say that since I was appointed in the summer of 2011 I have worked everyday.
“Whether it’s organising friendlies, training, organising buses, watching opposition, doing reports, it has been non-stop.
“I have worked everyday and I like to think that the club is in a better place now than it was when I was appointed.
“That comes with hard work and if you put in hard work you get rewards, we are going in the right direction.
“I wish I was stepping in the right direction with them, but I am leaving Morpeth Town in good hands”
A visibly emotional Gray went on to pay tribute to, what he called, “key figures” he has worked alongside in his five years at the club.
“There are people behind the scenes that deserve more credit. Jon McDonald is now North Shields manager and he did a great job here, Dave Malone has been instrumental is all of our success and the chairman deserves all of the credit in the world.
“Ken (Beattie) is one of the best chairman around and he should get more credit.
“Steven Anderson and Jordan Fry have been with me for ten years, ever since I was at Seaton Delaval in the Northern Alliance. They have matured and improved and they feel like friends and family.
“The likes of Ben Sayer) and Keith Graydon have only been here two years but they have attracted players to make us even stronger
It was tough to tell them I was leaving but they will carry on improving as players and as a club”
It’s difficult to assess what Gray and Morpeth Town’s biggest achievement is in the past five years.
Many will point to their remarkable turnaround in form in his first season in charge, or their FA Cup run during this season that was only ended by National League North club Altrincham.
However for Gray the choice seems to be obvious and clearly in no need for a debate.
“The Vase final is at the top. I live and breathe football, it is my life, two failed marriages probably tell you that.
“It is what I wake up for, what I live for. I still play in an over-40s league!
“The Vase is the pinnacle at this level and two or three years ago it felt like a dream that could become a reality.
“We actually did it against probably the biggest favourites there has been in the history of Vase finals.
“After twenty minutes we were getting battered, but the players stood up and showed what it meant to them.
“Nobody can take the result, or the day, away from us, away from the club.
“It is there, we are proud of it, I am certainly proud of it”
His departure for China is imminent, with a final date expected to be confirmed within the next week.
That means there is still time for a final hurrah in the Highwaymen dugout alongside his trusted backroom staff.
Ever the professional, Gray will leave thoughts of his new role in China until his job at Morpeth Town is done.
However, he did explain just what his new coaching role would entail in one of the most rapidly development countries in world football.
“It’s in Shanghai working in grassroots” explained Gray.
“I wouldn’t say it is a step back because grassroots in China is getting a lot of investment.
“They want me to go into schools and into grassroots clubs and coach players from eight to sixteen year old.
“The company has been in there for a year and there are good people involved.
“There are academy coaches and directors from the likes of West Ham United and Manchester City so it is very promising.
“It was a tough choice, but I will be demonstrating sessions to local coaches too.
“In China, they want everything done yesterday. They are investing heavily, they want the best players, the best facilities and going there was too good a chance to miss.
“If I didn’t I think I would regret it. I will be back at Christmas, as part of the contract, and if it doesn’t work out I can leave it then.
“I won’t have lost it, it’s on my CV and I have that experience.
“I got my ‘A’ Licence in the summer and I want to make use of it. I don’t agree with everything in the badges, your best education is on the pitch and in a dressing room but I will take this opportunity and progress my own career”
He continued “I had someone on my ‘A’ Licence course asked if I would be interested in going over to China and I thought ‘why not?’.
“I prefer working with older players but initially I tried for a role in Zghengzhou and that would be working with six to twelve year olds.
“I got to the final three applicants but then was offered the chance to go to Shanghai.
“I met with them and I would be a fool not to take the opportunity”
The announcement of Gray’s departure also brought news of new appointments.
Senior players Chris Swailes (pictured left) and Keith Graydon will form part of the new-look management team alongside Gray’s joint-manager Dave Malone.
When asked if he could offer the duo any advice, Gray’s response was emphatic.
“No chance, they give me advice, they are senior players and they are pivotal.
“You need them onside because without them, no matter how good you are, you are going to struggle.
“These two have a worldwide knowledge, I can see them being involved attracting players.
“Dave Malone is the main man now, he will judge his own future.
“The chairman is an honest man, if people work for the club, he rewards them and I think the progression will continue.
“The club is in great hands.
“Three years ago the likes of Keith Graydon and Chris Swailes wouldn’t have been at Morpeth Town.
“I am disappointed that I have signed players in the summer and I won’t see the best of them.
“But there are great people here, there will all be in it together, the club will move forward and I am proud to have been part of moving it forward”
Nick Gray may well be China-bound, but he can look back at his role in moving Morpeth Town forwards with great pride.
Interview: Mark Carruthers (@marknldaily)