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

andy gray part two

In the first part of our look back at the playing career of Andy Gray, we ran the thumb over his early career in Scotland and subsequent big-money moves to Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers, taking in a famous Wembley triumph and cup final winning goal along the way. In the conclusion of our two-parter, we will go forth and examine his subsequent move to Goodison Park and the role he played in the club’s success under Howard Kendall along with a consideration of his later career and his footballing legacy, playing wise, in general.

A Goodison Legend

Signed in November 1983, Gray’s contribution to Everton was both immediate and startling. Never shy or short of a joke or opinion, Gray immediately lifted the atmosphere in the changing room and with his sheer determination on the field apparent, he acted as a direct inspiration to those around him.

Although cup-tied, Gray was able to help inspire Everton to the extent that the League Cup Final was reached in 1984, and despite Merseyside rivals Liverpool pinching the cup after a scoreless game at Wembley, the good times were not far away for Everton now.

A similar run in the FA Cup saw Everton overcome Southampton in the semi-final at Highbury to set up a Wembley final against Graham Taylor’s Watford side. With nothing much to choose between the sides, a Graham Sharp goal gave Everton the lead at half-time but with all still to play for in the second half.

Six minutes into the second period and Gray’s moment of destiny arrived. An Everton move down the right progressed with Trevor Steven swinging over a cross deep into the Watford area. Watford ‘keeper, Steve Sherwood, rose confidently to collect the ball but as he did so, Gray timed his jump perfectly and headed the ball at exactly the same time as Sherwood got both hands to it. As the ball hit the back of the net, Watford protested furiously that Gray had fouled the goalkeeper and that the strike should not be allowed. However, the referee, John Hunting, ruled that Gray hadn’t impeded Sherwood and gave the goal.

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The ultimate 2-0 victory proved to be the springboard for further success for Everton, Kendall and Gray, with the 1984-85 season being the most memorable in the club’s history. With Gray and Graham Sharp leading the line, Everton swept to their first league title in fifteen seasons and also reached the finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the FA Cup once more.

Gray played so well that he was brought back into contention for a place in Scotland’s national side and featured in the World Cup qualifying campaign.

As the season came to a close, Everton had two cup finals in which to turn a fantastic season into an unbelievable one. The first of which was in Rotterdam against the Austrian side, Rapid Wien. After having overcome Bayern Munich in a legendary semi-final clash, Everton were expected to make short work of the limited Austrians, but with almost an hour gone the game was still scoreless. It was then that Gray scored his third cup final goal in three different competitions.

Graham Sharp intercepted a bad backpass and rounded the ‘keeper in a tight angle before pulling the ball back to Gray who couldn’t miss from six yards out. Everton went on to win the game 3-1 and the second part of the ‘treble’ was complete.

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The following Saturday Everton met Manchester United in the FA Cup Final but it proved to be one game too far for both Gray and Everton. On a muggy North London day, Gray found the going hard and had nothing left to give in his legs.

Many years later he would speak of how he knew after just a few minutes at Wembley that he was running on empty and although he wasn’t the only Everton player to suffer that day, there was a fair bit of mumbling amongst certain ranks that manager Howard Kendall should have employed the younger, fresher legs of substitute Alan Harper at Gray’s expense at some point. Instead, Harper stayed on the bench the entire 120 minutes of the final and Everton were beaten 1-0.

Following the success of 1984-85 Gray spent the summer preparing for the new season. He and his wife had just moved into their new house on the outskirts of Liverpool when Gray spotted a car pulling up outside. Watching his Everton manager, Howard Kendall, getting out, he remarked to his wife there was no point unpacking for the presence of his manager meant he was about to be transferred again.

Despite overseeing the most successful season in Everton’s history, Kendall had moved to strengthen the team by signing Gary Lineker from Leicester City and this meant there was no longer room for Gray in the squad. Gray was surprised and disappointed, as were thousands of Everton fans who started petitions in an effort to change Kendall’s mind. When these protests invariably proved futile, Gray had no option but to accept the inevitable, and after some consideration, he re-signed for Aston Villa.

If it was hoped that Gray’s return to Villa Park would help spark a resurgence similar to the one undertaken at Goodison Park, it was to prove a disappointment for all concerned. 1985-86 saw Gray score just five league goals as Villa finished in sixteenth place, just three points outside the relegation zone.

The following season was even worse with no goals being scored by Gray in his nineteen appearances as the club finished in the bottom three and were thus relegated just five years after being crowned European Champions. Much to Gray’s consternation, incoming manager, Graham Taylor, made it abundantly clear in the summer of 1987 that Gray had no future at Villa and so once again he was on the move.

This time he did not have far to travel to at least – and so presumably he and his wife didn’t have to worry about moving house – as he signed for Villa’s close rivals, West Bromwich Albion, then being managed for the second time by one Ron Atkinson. Many years later the two men would get into all sorts of hot water due to separate inappropriate – to say the least – comments and actions on mainstream television but for now, they were concentrating their efforts on ensuring WBA’s Second Division survival.

A year later out of the blue Atkinson received a phone call from an unexpected source. Would he be interested in selling Gray for a nominal fee and thus provide him with one last chance to play for a truly top team? Atkinson replied that it was OK with him and he would put the proposition to the player.

When Gray was sat before him in his office, Atkinson decided to have a little fun at his expense and so asked him to try and guess the identity of the ‘top side’ that was in for him. The almost 33-year-old Second Division striker threw out a few names, ‘Real Madrid? Barcelona? Liverpool?’ – all of which Atkinson responded to with a smirk and a shake of the head, before finally putting Gray out of his misery.

‘Souey wants you up at Rangers,’ he told him: ‘Interested?’

Gray couldn’t pack quickly enough. And so he enjoyed a reasonably short-lived last hurrah and Indian Summer in the dark blue shirt of his childhood idols. Although everyone concerned in the deal knew Gray’s game time would be limited at Ibrox, he still managed to make enough appearances to secure a league title medal at the end of the season as well as chipping in with several vital goals.

It was Gray’s last season in league football as he was released by Souness at the end of the season and he dropped down several divisions to play for Cheltenham Town, then in the non-league ranks before embarking on a career in television via a short role as Atkinson’s assistant at Aston Villa in the early 1990s.

So, where does that leave us when looking at the career of Andy Gray? Whilst an array of league titles, FA Cup, League Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup medals and 20 Scottish caps is in no way a poor return on a reasonably lengthy career, there is a contention that Gray could have possibly achieved more in the game.

He was undoubtedly an extremely brave player, and at his very pomp during his Everton days and for a while at Aston Villa he would show a determination and courage that bordered on the reckless.

As a result, large chunks of what should have been his peak years were either spent on the injury table or with his performance diluted at less than peak levels. With the exception of the 1977 League Cup victory with Aston Villa, the similar 1980 success at Wolves and the last-gasp career-wise Scottish title success at Rangers, Gray’s medals were all won during a golden 18-month period at Everton, where he undoubtedly played an instrumental part in the Toffees’ success. Once Lineker was signed, however, Gray’s time there was up.

There were some poor career choices too, maybe. Falling out with Ron Saunders just when Aston Villa were on the cusp of something big was perhaps not Gray’s brightest decision and neither was the choice of Wolverhampton Wanderers as his next destination. The 1980 Wembley success notwithstanding, too many of Gray’s peak years were spent at Molineux and it was during this time that Gray’s injury problems and lack of fulfilment of his potential contributed to him becoming something of a forgotten man.

Nowadays, Gray is still rightly revered for his role in Everton’s transformation in the mid-1980s, but it is perhaps a sad epitaph that a two decade-career is best remembered for an eighteen-month period.

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