FORMER Darlington manager Martin Gray is in reflective mood. It’s been just over a year since leaving Quakers and recently had his feet up for a couple of months after being sacked by York City, providing an opportunity to look back and he’s happy to admit that he made mistakes.

It has been an eventful 18 months for a man who has just been appointed as director of sport by Shildon, returning to the Northern League from where he won the first of three promotions with Darlington, yet he is not a popular figure among Quakers supporters, despite his part in rebuilding a broken club.

When he made his first return to Darlington as manager of York in January last season the reception ranged somewhere between indifference and hostility. There was no red carpet welcome, no fanfare, and extra security was arranged as a precaution.

He had quit three months earlier after a five-and-a-half year tenure. Like a marriage that had turned sour, it was a decision that suited all parties.

As Gray begins a new role with Shildon, he wishes to “draw a line” under his Darlington days by responding to a range of the issues that have been talking points.

The Northern Echo: Martin Gray with the trophy after Darlington clinched the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League title, the third of their promotions in his time as Quakers' boss. Picture: CHRIS BOOTH

Seat-gate

DARLINGTON finished fifth in 2016-17, but were not allowed to participate in the play-offs as they did not meet ground criteria, meaning Blackwell Meadows did not have sufficient seats under a roof.

Gray: “With six games to go I was told we couldn’t win promotion due to bad management by the board and that hurt.

“If there was ever a time to leave, and lots of people in the game told me to go, then it was at the end of that season. But my heart ruled my head, Darlington Football Club meant so much to me and there was unfinished business.

“I had the chance to go to in the summer. I had an approach from a full-time club, but I felt that I hadn’t finished the journey with Darlington.”

Raj Singh and the fans forum

AT a fans forum shortly after it became public knowledge that Darlington had not installed enough seats at Blackwell Meadows, Gray revealed he had been in talks with Raj Singh - the man at the helm when Darlington suffered financial ruin in 2011-12 – about returning and investing in the club. Fans were furious.

Gray: “Raj Singh had always kept in touch. He was a football fan and had made massive mistakes and wanted to put it right.

“I had spoken to other people first after putting their money in, they didn’t want to, but in hindsight Raj Singh was the wrong person to go to.

“The fans wanted to stay as a fan-owned club and I respect that, I really do. But I didn’t think we could continue like that and go where we wanted to take the club.

“Everyone says it was dropped on the directors at the fans forum. But before that night I’d had meetings at Blackwell Grange Hotel with Darlington directors, John Tempest being one of them, and Raj. Raj put a considerable amount on the table, non-returnable, and Darlington took it.

“We then said we need to present this to the supporters at the fans forum. That’s when I went in with my size tens on and said ‘we need some investment to take us forward, without it we have hit the ceiling’.”

*Darlington say the £10,000 Singh gave the club was towards the pitch fund on a non-returnable basis and a gesture of goodwill.

Leaving Darlington for York

FOURTEEN games into the 2017-18 season, and with Darlington 12th after one win in 11 previous games, Gray headed to York City – a club in the same division as Quakers.

Gray: “I thought it was the right thing to do for my career. My ambition was to manage as high as I could – and I still haven’t lost that ambition – and I couldn’t turn down that opportunity.

“I’d wanted to go full-time with Darlington at some point, not York, to have a full-time academy and first team squad and get us back to the Football League. York didn’t work out, it was something I had to try but it didn’t work out.

“What really hurt when I came back to Darlington with York in January was that my dad, who has followed me all around the country and been to every game, couldn’t come to that game. It should’ve been a proud day for my parents but I couldn’t let them come to that game.

“I didn’t feel great about winning that day and I didn’t speak to the media before the game or after it. I just wanted to get the day over and done with.

“People have a perception of me. I think some people can’t understand why I left and I understand that because Darlington are a big club at this level. The reason I left was York are full-time, that was my ambition as a manager.”

‘Bucket rattling’

WHEN Gray became York manager he gave an interview to the BBC in which a comment - about joining a club where fans do not need to collect money in buckets - was perceived as criticism of Darlington supporters and it has not been forgotten.

Gray: “When I left I was a bit prickly. I’m not on social media but you tend to be told only the bad things. And there were plenty of those. But I decided not to say anything. Even when I did comment on the subject, I got into to trouble.

“Like the Radio York interview. Things I said came across wrong and I upset people. I need to eat a bit of humble pie because I didn’t mean it like that, I was wrong. I was frustrated with the management at Darlington, I was hurt and I apologise now.

“The reason the club is where it is now is because we all played a part. Without the fans the club wouldn’t be where it is because of the money they have raised. I do know that and they played an enormous role in keeping the club going and the successes and promotions we achieved.

“The comparison I was making, at that time, to explain my decision to leave is that York are a full-time, non-league club with a wealthy backer. I would love nothing more than seeing Darlington in that position so the club can really compete. And I did everything I could to make that happen and find that person.

“It hurts me what some people think and they don’t remember the good times. I was in Newcastle on a Saturday night recently with my wife and a group of young lads were giving me a lot of abuse, saying ‘you’ve killed our club’.”

‘Busting the budget’

IT was during 2011-12 Darlington went into administration for a third time, but they have also had some scrapes in their new era too. So did Gray put the club’s existence at risk by spending more than they could afford?

Gray: “I can only ever work what I’m given. If I ask the chairman for money it is his job to say yes or no. I’ve been over budget during a season, definitely, but I’ve always pulled it back by selling a player.

“So I could be over budget in September but by October or November I’d balance the books.

“What not many know is that in 2015-16 I’d gone months without getting paid [payment was deferred] and ended up getting a promotion. Not many managers would’ve done that.”

MGFA and Darlington FC

THERE is a perception that Gray’s company, the Martin Gray Football Academy, grew due to its association with Quakers, and that he benefitted financially due to education grants gained via his students attending the MGFA’s Btec course at Darlington College.

Gray: “My business helped build the club. The MGFA spends £250,000 a year on staff and costs. Within the five years we built an academy and I funded it through coaches like Brian Atkinson, Sean Gregan, Deano Browne, Andrew Jinks and Tony Norman.

“Did we get a financial return? Yes, slightly. From 2016 the MGFA wore the Darlington FC badge in a partnership with the club, which was a benefit. But Darlington FC didn’t pay my staff to coach in primary schools telling the kids they’ll play for the football club.

“The link helped the business grow within the town. We grew together and the academy grew alongside it. There was a financial kickback for everybody. But did we make money because of the Btec? No. The MGFA was operating a couple of years before I came to the football club in 2012.

“We get funding to cover the hours we put into every student, and we put the hours in going out and finding them in the schools in the first place. The football club got players at the end of this, that was their gain.”

‘Promotion was easy’

SUPPORTERS have largely enjoyed Darlington’s journey over the past six years, but there are those who believe the three promotions since 2012 are undermined due to the club having a relatively large number of supporters, therefore enjoying more financial muscle than some rivals.

Gray: “We didn’t have a player at the start in 2012. We had a fanbase and that was it. I remember meeting potential new signings and they would turn us down saying ‘we can’t sign for Darlington because give it a couple of months and we won’t get paid’.

“They weren’t comfortable signing for us when teams like Spennymoor had a strong structure already in place. There’s a lot of money floating around in non-league, a lot of competition, and everyone wanted to beat us.

“One club we went to we were treated terribly, dreadful conditions in the changing room, and I’d tell the players ‘keep your standards, remember who you’re representing’. It was always a cup final for teams playing us, and if they got a draw or beat then they made sure you knew about it.

“That was the challenge, Darlington Football Club travelling midweek to places in Liverpool or Manchester, it was a big deal for these clubs and they would give 30 per cent more energy.

“It made for a tough challenge but it also made it very rewarding. It was a fantastic journey we went on and you remember the good times like winning the title at Whitby.”

Shildon

LAST week Gray was appointed by Shildon chairman David Dent as sporting director, a role that will see him work on building their academy as well as other aspects of the Northern League club.

Gray: “I have the same feeling with this chairman as I had six years ago. The challenge excites me, we’ve built an academy and a first team in the past.

“What we’ve got here is an established football club probably two years ahead of where Darlington were at the beginning.

“We’re not starting from nothing, at present there’s already about 150 in the academy there. But we want to make it the best it can be.

“We had club suits and everyone said ‘who do they think they are in the Northern League’. It was about setting standards and Shildon will have the same format.

“I want the best training facilities, and I want the best pitch to play on, I want the manager to have the best chance of winning games and the community to understand the importance of what we’re trying to do.

“I want to do what we’ve done in the past and learn from the mistakes that have been made.”

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