Billy Gray: Footballer whose energetic midfield scheming helped Nottingham Forest to FA Cup glory in 1959
Saturday 23 April 2011
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.
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