Andy Gray: a slightly unfulfilled career? (part one)

andy gray part two

A clean sweep of all three domestic honours, including goals in two successful Wembley cup finals, further success in European competition, a league title triumph in Scotland, and twenty caps for his country seem to indicate at least a reasonably successful career, and yet it could be argued that Andy Gray, most famously of Everton, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers fame, slightly underachieved in his career.

This might seem a strange epitaph to bestow on the man who set a British transfer record of almost £1.5 million in September 1979 when he departed Villa Park bound for Molineux, so maybe an in depth look at the playing career of one Andrew Mullen Gray is required.

Beginnings and Villa Park

Born in Glasgow, Gray grew up supporting Glasgow Rangers, but signed for Dundee United at the age of 17 after a spell in youth football. A raw, aggressive forward, Gray was not particularly large at 5 foot 11 inches, but he soon gained a reputation for both his sharpness and bravery. Despite not being quite prolific, Gray shone at Tannadice and when the 1974 Scottish Cup Final was reached, Gray’s name was thrust into the national spotlight.

Unfortunately, a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Celtic ensued, but it was not long before Gray was being linked with a move away from Dundee United. When he finally did leave Tanandice it was to venture south and to Villa Park, Birmingham, to play for Ron Saunders’ Aston Villa side.

When Gray arrived at the club for £110,000 in October 1975, he was part of the rebuilding programme that Saunders was undertaking. Having guided Villa to promotion and League Cup success the previous season, Saunders was now looking to reestablish Villa in the top flight and the signing of Gray showed intent.

Gray hit the ground running and just two months after signing for Villa he found himself making his international debut in a European Championship qualifying match.

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His first full season in England, 1976-77, was an unqualified success as he netted 29 goals in league and cup that season to end up joint top goalscorer and take a share of the Golden Boot alongside Arsenal’s Malcolm Macdonald. The personal honours did not end there as he also won the PFA Young Player of the Year and the PFA Players’ Player of the Year awards.

Perhaps most importantly of all, his goals helped fire Villa to another League Cup success and a strong fourth-place finish in the league.

1977-78 was not quite as strong for either Villa or Gray personally, and it was to end in personal disappointment when he was not selected for the Scotland World Cup squad for that year’s tournament in Argentina.

Setting a Record and Wembley Triumph

By the summer of 1979, Gray’s relationship with manager Saunders had broken down. Gray was not responding well to Saunders’ rather authoritative bent, and it came as no particular surprise when it was announced that Gray would be leaving the club. What was somewhat of a shock though, was the destination Gray ended up at.

With clubs such as Nottingham Forest, Arsenal and Manchester United all rumoured to be interested in taking Gray off an unhappy Saunders’ hands, it was hard to fathom why he ended up signing for Wolverhampton Wanderers and their manager, John Barnwell.

The fact that Barnwell was in the process of selling Steve Daley to Manchester City for an astronomical and bizarre transfer record of £1.44 million may have had something to do with it. The windfall received from Malcolm Allison at City meant that Barnwell could outbid any rival for Gray’s signature, and although Gray was not initially on a significantly high wage upon his move to Molineux, he was impressed enough with Barnwell and the set-up at the club to sign on the dotted line in a deal that broke the transfer record set by Daly’s move just weeks before.

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Gray would stay at Wolves for four seasons over a period which could be seen to be his potential peak years, but to be honest this was a mixed period for him. At a time when he should have been firing on all cylinders, competing for all trophies available in the game at a big club, and cementing a place in the starting lineup for his country, Gray was perhaps falling short of his potential.

That said, there were some good times to be had at Wolves and none more so than on 15 March 1980.

With Fern Kerney riding high in the charts with ‘Together We Are Beautiful’, Wolverhampton Wanderers had a Wembley date with both destiny and Nottingham Forest in the final of the Football League Cup.

Forest were of course led by the formidable managerial duo of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor and were looking to secure the club’s third successive League Cup triumph since returning to the top flight in 1977. Hard-fought victories over Liverpool in 1978 and Southampton in 1978 had led Forest to the cusp of a unique treble of victories and, despite not enjoying as successful a 1979-80 league season as the previous two ones, they still came into the Wembley clash as favourites. Wolves were enjoying a decent season themselves, however, and as they made the journey to North London they lay in eighth spot in the First Division, behind Forest only on goal difference with a game in hand.

The match was a tight affair with not much happening and not much to choose between the sides in rather a dull first half. It was a game when most of the attacking talent on display – Trevor Francis and Garry Birtles for Forest, and John Richards and Gray for Wolves – had little opportunity to showcase their respective talents, with both midfields cancelling each other out and space being at a premium.

With the game entering its last quarter of regular time, the scoreline was still blank and already thoughts were turning to extra time and a possible replay. Then a Forest attack broke down and the ball was played to Wolves’ number 4, Peter Daniel, just inside his own half to the right of the centre circle. Daniel punted a long ball forward in the general direction of the Forest penalty area between the Forest centre-backs.

Dave Needham, the Forest number 5, seemed to have the danger covered as he met the ball on his chest on the edge of his penalty area. One can only imagine Needham’s sense of surprise then to be hit with a thirteen-stone challenge that laid him out and caused the ball to run free. That it was his own goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, who had made the challenge must have been doubly perplexing for the unfortunate Needham and the two Forest miscreants could only watch on helplessly as Andy Gray ran in to guide the ball into the empty net from eight yards.

The ‘Gold’ half of Wembley erupted and despite Forest pouring forward in desperate search of an equalizer, Gray’s strike proved to be the only goal of the game. Wolves had won their first major trophy in eight years, and their last to date.

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Despite an FA Cup semi-final appearance the following season, this was as good as it was going to get for Gray at Wolves, and in 1982 the club was relegated to the Second Division. Unsurprisingly, Gray once again failed to make the cut when it came time for Scotland to name their World Cup squad and although promotion in 1983 was gained, Gray’s personal stock had continued to fall somewhat.

He had indeed spent large portions of his career suffering from bad luck injury-wise, and large chunks of his career had been lost at the hands of the surgeon’s knife. By November 1983, it seemed that Gray’s career was on the wane and what had once promised to be a bright future was threatening to peter out unsatisfactorily.

On the Move Again

The Scot was transfer-listed and found himself on offer for a cut-price £250,000 with seemingly few takers. Then fate played a hand and the next eighteen months would see Gray turn both his and his new club’s fortunes around and become firmly installed as a club legend.

When Howard Kendall returned to Everton as manager in 1981, he knew he faced an uphill struggle to help the Toffees emerge from Liverpool’s shadow, and now, just two years later, he already seemed to be drinking in the last chance saloon. While Liverpool had continued to go from strength to strength, Everton were two-thirds of the way down the table, crowds had shrunk to well below 20,000 and there was an air of gloom and despondency around Goodison Park.

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The signing of a supposedly semi-permanently crocked and past-it Andy Gray initially did little to impress or excite the Gladwy’s Street faithful, but with nothing to lose on either side, all parties were willing to give it a go.

In the second and final instalment of this short report on the playing career of Andy Gray, we will take a look at the spell for which he is best remembered in the game and will ponder on the question of whether or not he truly realised his full potential.