IT has been quite a decade for Martin Gray. As he reflects on everything that has happened in the last ten years, the 49-year-old finds himself looking back on a demanding ten years in which he experienced huge success as Darlington manager, less so with York City, and oversaw the growth of an academy which began modestly, which has developed into arguably the most successful junior football operation in the region.

Starting with only a bag of balls and a set of cones as a soccer school during the summer holidays in Sedgefield, thousands of North-East kids have since been coached by the Martin Gray Football Academy (MGFA).

It has progressed to the stage whereby it now has a presence in around 30 schools across the North-East, helping children develop on and off the pitch.

Helping improve young people academically and personally may not have been the initial vision, Gray admits, though ten years down the line that’s where the MGFA is having an impact.

“I started by advertising as a school holiday course and there was good interest,” says Gray, speaking at his office at Eastbourne Sports Complex in Darlington. “There were 80 or 90 kids the first week and I was thinking, ‘Wow, where has this come from’, and it has gone from there. Everything operated from a back bedroom at home, now we’ve got 12 full-time staff.

“I didn’t have the vision of where we are today, but I knew I didn’t want to go down the route of always coaching the best players - I’m very much about giving everyone an equal opportunity. We do work with the so-called elite players, but that’s only a small percentage of the business. Most of the MGFA is helping younger people go on to achieve something.”

Speak to the teachers at the schools Gray’s staff are working in and the first thing they mention is not their pupils’ first touch improving or shooting accuracy. Instead, football is used as a tool to help improve self-confidence and other issues, such as discipline and respect.

Gray explains: “It’s not about, ‘Can you do 20 kick-ups?’ First and foremost, with some young people, it’s, ‘Can you take part?’ Giving them confidence to join in.

“Life skills that you learn at an early age are important: being there on time, keeping your equipment clean, being well-mannered, being respectful to your peers. If we can encourage these things by being good role models then we’re doing what’s right for young people.

“As parents, we’re all guilty at times of not getting it right. But I believe that understanding kids and what makes them tick is a big part of helping them develop.

“You’re giving them confidence by encouraging them to become part of a team. Some might’ve been very reluctant to do a PE session in the past. You might have a young lad in year seven who’s been bullied and found it difficult to join in with a group. But by year eight or nine, he’s developed and grown confidence, and seeing that is really important to us because it’s where you’re making an impact on young peoples’ lives.”

Rachel Donohue, principal at Academy 360 in Sunderland, is full of praise, saying: “They’ve got an unwavering dedication to students in an area considered to be disadvantaged for so many reasons. Often, young people Martin comes into contact with lack confidence and aspiration, and that’s crucial in terms of achieving their personal and academic best.

“We believe in giving the kids an experience where they’re working with good role models who can support them and give them more confidence, whether that’s through sport, though coaching conversations about making the right choices, it helps them to achieve well in their personal life as well as academically.

“Martin creates an environment for them to feel confident so they can make a start on addressing those personal issues.”

Anne Pringleton, headteacher at Corporation Road Primary School in Darlington, adds: “We’ve had some really difficult children regarding behaviour management, it’s not their fault they come from difficult backgrounds.

“Martin will send coaches to work one-to-one, they get rewards, they’ve been given experiences like being taken to football grounds and I can rely on them to go above and beyond.

“For me, it’s about having adults as role models, who can open doors for them and show what’s out there. Martin’s team do that.”

The MGFA was Gray’s shot in a competitive industry in which not all survive, his first venture after leaving professional football in 2010.

He previously played for Sunderland, Oxford and Darlington, and those who remember Gray’s playing days will recall a combative midfielder, not a player you’d relish facing in the tackle.

He took a winning mentality into his Darlington managerial days which saw him enjoy three promotions in the period between 2010 and 2017.

The players who contributed to those successes would not be surprised to hear a Gray-coached team today being described as well-drilled and organised.

Chris Johnson, headteacher at Argyle House in Sunderland, explains: “The impact he has made has been astronomical, really. We always used to struggle to compete, now we’re competing with the bigger schools because we’re better coached, better drilled and more organised. His passion for the game rubs off on all the other coaches who he sends.

“The admiration the kids have for him is unreal. They all look forward to his coaching on a Thursday or Friday, they think it’s amazing.”

It was around two years after MGFA launched that they began working in schools during term time, with a former teacher of Gray’s heavily involved.

Dave Mills, now familiar to Darlington supporters as the club’s community and operations consultant, was one of Gray’s teachers at school in Sedgefield many moons ago, and he helped deliver the MGFA’s academic programme, fusing football with maths, English or science.

“There was a big interest from primary and secondary school children, so we started to ask if we could do more in curriculum time,” explained Gray. “We made a breakthrough with schools in the Aycliffe, Shildon and Darlington area.”

Today, the MGFA operates in 30 schools and has been partnered with Darlington College for seven years, delivering Active IQ and Btec qualifications.

Last week, the Darlington College team, unbeaten all season, beat Gateshead College in a cup final to complete a treble. Among their alumni is Vinnie Steels, now playing for Sunderland, while the qualifications can help students reach university.

Gray adds: “There’s kids that we’ve known at Harrowgate Hill primary school, then Longfield and now they’re at Darlington College. That’s an eight or nine-year journey they’ve been with us and we see them develop as young people. We’ve seen kids grow up and go into employment, and six or seven have gone on to become employees with us, which is fantastic.

“A lot of the people we have worked with, it’s not been about their football ability, that’s only a small element, it’s about how you can change a young person’s life.”