Gray and Golds turn City into promotion contender

James Gray and Graham Golds. Picture: Bob Walkley

James Gray and Graham Golds. Picture: Bob Walkley - Credit: Archant

When St Albans City took the field for their play-off semi-final last night (Wednesday) it was the culmination of 18 months hard graft to turn the club around.

The Saints were left in disarray in October 2013 when David Howell was sacked, and matters were made worse when many of his players followed him out of the door.

The board interviewed a number candidates for the position before offering the job to two youth coaches with no senior management experience, James Gray and Graham Golds.

“There was a risk in giving James and Graham the job, but we liked their style of play and we talked a lot about it when we interviewed them; we liked what we were hearing,” said club chairman Nick Archer.

It was a risk that paid off; last night is testament to that but it hasn’t been an easy ride for Golds and Gray. They inherited a squad that wasn’t theirs – it wasn’t even Howell’s after the core followed him out of Clarence Park – but they managed to cobble together a team that could compete, albeit inconsistently.

“What we were left with was a good squad and if we had kept all of them we would have been competitive and finished higher than we did but nine players left in two or three weeks – it wasn’t easy,” explained Gray.

With a small squad City still managed to challenge for the play-offs before falling away at the end of the season.

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“We gave ourselves a chance with eight weeks left but we didn’t have the legs or the experience to get there. But we managed to give some of the younger players playing time which has been invaluable this season.”

After an 11th placed finish, Gray and Golds started plotting their course to the Conference South. In came the likes of John Frendo and Lee Chappell and Gray even convinced Ben Martin to return to his old club from Welling United.

“One of the first lessons I learnt is that there is not much loyalty in football. As soon as there’s turmoil at a club someone will try to poach your players,” said Gray.

“But St Albans is a big club and players’ ears prick up when you say you’re the St Albans manager. John, Lee and Ben were the start of it and once you have those players through the door it gets easier to sign others because people can see that you’re going to be successful.”

Despite all the new faces, City struggled out of the gate and picked up four losses before the end of September. Still, Gray never lost faith that he would be able to deliver on his promise of getting the Saints into the play-offs.

“We knew it would take time for the side to gel and we’ve made changes throughout the season but now this is the best non-league squad I’ve been involved with,” he told the Herts Ad.

The squad showed its calibre in the final three months of 2013 as it reached the first round proper of the FA Cup and the second round of the FA Trophy. City also went unbeaten in 11 games and broke the record for consecutive away games without a loss (16).

It took a nervous finish to finally capture the play-offs, though. After an indifferent end to the season, City picked up the point needed in a goalless draw at Frome Town to set up the semi-final tie at Cambridge City.

“I’ve never felt like we didn’t have enough for the play-offs and I’m pleased for everyone associated with the club that we have kept our promise and got there,” he said.