Billy Gray: Footballer whose energetic midfield scheming helped Nottingham Forest to FA Cup glory in 1959

Billy Gray was an energetic, endlessly enthusiastic, all-purpose football man.

The diminutive north-easterner thrived with five clubs as a player, first as a winger, then as a deep-lying schemer and eventually as a full-back. Though not quite of full international quality, he earned a cap for England "B" in 1950; he exerted vast influence as Nottingham Forest won the FA Cup in 1959; he took Millwall to successive promotions in the mid-1960s and managed two other League clubs; and finally he returned to Forest as groundsman in the 1980s, during the era of Brian Clough.

Yet for all his commitment and his natural ability, Gray – an all-rounder who also excelled at tennis and golf – did not find an easy path into the professional ranks. Though his post-war efforts in the Newcastle and District League for his local club, Dinnington Colliery, earned him trials with top-flight Wolverhampton Wanderers and Gateshead of the Third Division North, neither took him on and it was not until May 1947, at the age of 20, that he was recruited by his first Football League employer, Leyton Orient.

At Brisbane Road he made a brisk initial impact, scoring in his second game, and although he didn't command a regular berth with the Third Division South side, in December 1948 he demonstrated his prodigious appetite by turning out twice in one day, for the reserves in the morning and the first team in the afternoon.

Despite only 20 appearances for Orient, Gray was snapped up by Chelsea for a modest fee in March 1949 and began playing the best football of his life to date. Featuring on both flanks, he sparkled as the Pensioners staved off relegation from the First Division in three successive seasons in the early 1950s, first under Billy Birrell and then Ted Drake, and he was suitably rewarded with his England "B" call-up. He scored in a 5-0 victory over the Swiss in January 1950 but was never summoned again.

He shone, also, as Chelsea reached FA Cup semi-finals in 1949-50 and 1951-52, falling to Arsenal both times after replays, all four games being played at White Hart Lane. In the first he gave a particularly torrid time to the Gunners' Welsh international full-back Walley Barnes while linking slickly with the stylish centre-forward Roy Bentley, and in the third he contributed Chelsea's goal in a 1-1 draw.

The Stamford Bridge fans warmed to the chunky Gray's eagerness; they admired his pace, trickery and dexterity at crossing the ball; and they marvelled at his stamina as he sprinted up and down his touchline, putting in considerably more physical effort than many wingers of his day. Accordingly, they were aghast in August 1953 when he was sold for £16,000 to Burnley, whose supporters were in a similarly outraged frame of mind over the recent departure to Sunderland of a favourite attacker, Billy Elliott. The signing of Gray, who inherited veteran Jackie Chew's No 7 shirt, was seen as a coup for the Turf Moor manager Frank Hill, especially when the newcomer scored seven times in an autumn spell of six games, including a hat-trick in a 4-2 win against Spurs.

That term Gray was ever-present, forming a potent partnership with the inspirational Irish inside-forward Jimmy McIlroy and topping the Clarets' goal chart with 20 in senior competition. It was a remarkable achievement given that he had hit only 13 in his career before joining Burnley, and he was a major factor in the club's seventh-place finish in the First Division and their elimination of Manchester United from the FA Cup.

Gray continued to excel as the Clarets remained in the top half of the table during the next two campaigns, but in 1956 he lost his place to the younger Doug Newlands, which led to his transfer to newly promoted Nottingham Forest in June 1957.

In 1957-58 Gray, who had just turned 30, was workmanlike as Forest consolidated their status, but it was in 1958-59 that he blossomed anew after the shrewd City Ground manager Billy Walker converted him from winger to midfield general. Meshing smoothly with the cultured wing-half Jeff Whitefoot and fellow inside-forward Johnny Quigley, he shone as a creator and scored five goals, including three penalties, during Forest's progress to the FA Cup final. At Wembley, where Forest beat Luton Town 2-1 despite losing the scorer of their first goal, Roy Dwight, to a broken leg and battling on with 10 men in those pre-substitute days, Gray was in tremendous form. He had a hand in the goal and then, having dropped deeper than usual following Dwight's injury, set up his side's second for Tommy Wilson.

As the years crept up, Gray switched successfully to full-back and was part of Forest's first foray into Europe, in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1961-62. Alas, they lost in the first round, 7-1 on aggregate to Valencia. Having made his last appearance in the top flight shortly before his 36th birthday, he joined Millwall as player-manager in November 1963, taking over a team in dire straits and which was relegated to the Fourth Division at the end of that season.

However, Gray, a deep-thinking, ceaselessly industrious character, reacted positively, laying the foundations of a youth policy which was to reap rich dividends later in the decade and blending his rookies with experienced performers such as Len Julians and Jimmy Whitehouse.

With a side including goalkeeper Alex Stepney, later of Manchester United, popular full-back Harry Cripps and striker Hugh Curran, he led Millwall to second place in the Fourth Division in 1964-65. Then, with a few tweaks, he guided them towards runners-up spot in the Third Division a year later, a colossal achievement rendered more remarkable by the fact that they remained unbeaten at the Den throughout both campaigns.

Sadly for a man who had wrought such a dramatic transformation, Gray never took his creation into the Second Division, having departed following a rift with Millwall directors in the spring of 1966. That summer he took over at Brentford and, despite a shortage of cash which almost put them out of business, he kept them in the top half of the Fourth Division.

In September 1967 he went to Notts County, another impecunious club from the same grade, and though they were bottom when he resigned a year later, he had made several canny signings, including the future Scotland international playmaker Don Masson and forward Les Bradd. Later he coached at Fulham before his stint in charge of the City Ground pitch.

In May 2009 Gray and his old comrade Whitefoot, who is now the only survivor of Nottingham Forest's FA Cup triumph of 1959, led the official celebrations of its 50th anniversary.

William Patrick Gray, footballer and manager: born Dinnington, County Durham 24 May 1927; played for Leyton Orient 1947-49, Chelsea 1949-53, Burnley 1953-57, Nottingham Forest 1957-63, Millwall 1963-65; managed Millwall 1963-66, Brentford 1966-67, Notts County 1967-68; married (three sons); died Aspley, Nottingham 11 April 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine