By Jason McKeown
It is a common theme of a Bradford City winless run that supporters will look for the answers in reserve. Take a check at who is on the sidelines and, in particular, those who haven’t figured for some time, and loudly question why this is so. “How come Isaiah Rankin/Ben Muirhead/Barry Conlon/Jake Speight isn’t given a chance?”
Sure enough, the recent winless run featured similar background noise, with Alan Connell and Carl McHugh amongst those endlessly talked up. But there was one man left out of such supporters calls; a man who even in desperate times, it seems, is viewed by no-one as the solution. And that is probably the most damning statement that can be made over his standing at the club.
Andy Gray is not the Forgotten Man of Valley Parade – he is the Unwanted. His name continues to crop up in the conversation, but only as a minor stick with which to beat Phil Parkinson over. “I don’t understand why he signed him”, “A complete waste of money”. No one knows for sure what he earns, but an educated guess would put Gray’s name amongst the club’s high earners. An expensive flop.
And it’s hard to see how Gray’s second spell at Bradford City isn’t effectively over, already. He has not achieved a single minute of first team action this season – just four non-used substitute appearances, the last when the winless run began against Tranmere. As City’s slump continued, Gray was pushed further and further away from contention. Fourth choice behind James Hanson, Nahki Wells and Alan Connell. Make that fifth choice, after Mark Yeates was asked to play up front when Wells was injured. No sixth choice, after Caleb Folan’s arrival. Seventh choice, when Garry Thompson played up front against Preston. Eighth choice, Oli McBurnie makes his senior debut at Rotherham. Andy Gray is our eighth choice striker.
Last season wasn’t much better for him. Arriving at Valley Parade the day after City’s League Cup semi final first leg victory over Aston Villa – he turned down the chance to sign for the Bantams that summer in favour of an unproductive second spell at neighbours Leeds United – Gray ended up making just eight underwhelming appearances as Parkinson found continued success from the Hanson-Wells combination. Warming the bench at Elland Road had done little for his match fitness, and he made no impact in the games he did figure in.
Indeed Gray’s most memorable moment, for me, came in his second start, a JPT cup tie at Crewe. City were 1-0 up through Kyel Reid, when Gray was played through one-on-one with just the keeper to beat. Despite a sizeable headstart over a flat-footed Crewe back four, incredibly he was caught up with and easily robbed of the ball before he could get a shot at goal. This was troubling.
In hindsight it looks symbolic of his second spell as a Bantam – it wasn’t just Crewe’s defence that had caught up with him, but time itself.
It’s not nice to see what has become of Gray. I really liked him during his first period at the club, and I firmly believe that we did a huge amount to kick-start a career that was drifting to obscurity. Prior to Nicky Law bringing him to Valley Parade during that troubled summer of 2002 (the club going through administration one), Gray had been a winger of promise for Leeds United and Nottingham Forest, but who never lived up to his potential.
His arrival at City hardly set the pulses racing – for however desperate things were financially back then, it was still only two years since Benito Carbone and all – yet Gray was just what we needed. Law converted him from an inconsistent winger to a targetman, where he excelled. In a new-look team that was struggling in the second tier, Gray relished the responsibility of leading the forward line and picked up the player of the season award.
15 goals that season, when prior to joining the Bantams he’d only achieved two in his entire career.
Indeed it was very sad when, less than a year later and with City back into administration, Gray was sold to Sheffield United on the cheap. Supposedly lots of clubs were after him, but the adminstrators let him go for peanuts. Gray continued to impress as a striker at Bramall Lane and, 18 months after his Valley Parade exit, was soon on the move again, to Sunderland, for over £1 million.
£1 million! And yet that wasn’t the end of the relatively big money moves. £750k took him to Burnley, then £1.5 million was spent by Alan Pardrew at Charlton, where he would work with Parkinson. Throw in an undisclosed sum from moving to Barnsley, and we have a player who has probably commanded close to £4 million in transfer fees over the course of his career.
Yet here he is, with his City career seemingly over. 36-years-old and out of contract at the end of the season. It’s not so much a case of him being released (it’s surely a given), but whether he views it as the opportune time to hang up his boots for good. Without questioning his motives, the fact Gray chose to move to Leeds over City 18 months ago – when he would so clearly be a back up player at best – doesn’t suggest someone with the Ricky Ravenhill outlook of being desperate to play as much as possible as the clock winds down. Could you see Gray dropping down to non-league, for example, just to keep playing?
Bringing it back to Bradford City matters, what does the club do with Gray? He was made available to go on loan a month ago but, unlike Ravenhill and Connell, there has been no known interest and the loan window shut last week with him still in West Yorkshire. Perhaps it would have been different had Gray not injured his arm in the opening pre-season friendly game at Guiseley, which ruled him out of the start of the season. No one needed a pre-season more than Gray. Now he seems surplus to requirements. Eighth choice strikers don’t tend to be required that often.
Yet there is at least one huge, huge positive from this somewhat sorry tale: James Hanson. Last May I was fortunate to spend the player of the season awards evening on a table chatting to Phil Parkinson, and asked him about the disappointment of Gray. Without broadcasting the details of a private conversation, I’m sure the City manager won’t mind me disclosing that, in his view, Gray’s arrival brought out the best of James Hanson.
It was almost the push that Hanson needed to improve on his own stalling performances, and – as I wrote earlier in the season – following Gray’s arrival, James’ form was transformed. Two goals in 27 before Gray, eight in 23 after. And Hanson has continued in that vein this season. I personally was never in agreement with supporter calls, throughout 2012, for Parkinson to sign someone to provide competition for Hanson, but these people were proven spectacularly right - even if Gray doesn’t appear to represent any competition for City’s number nine.
Nevertheless, Gray’s second Bradford City coming is going to go down as a footnote on an otherwise impressive career. If a loan move doesn’t materialise in the January window, expect to hear news of Gray’s contract being settled before the season is over.
A sad twist of fate that the club which did so much to launch Gray’s career looks set to be the same one that brings it to an end.