Football: Gray's days of Poland, widgets and Jimmy Hill

SCOTTISH CUP FINAL: Renaissance man rolls back the years as the Bairns plan to roll over Killie at Ibrox
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The Independent Online
Limelight and Falkirk are an unlikely pairing, but for Andy Gray an unexpected day in the sun at the Scottish Cup final is just what he needed.

"I feel like a young kid again," Gray, the former Crystal Palace and Tottenham midfielder whose career bombed spectacularly, says of his renaissance on the south side of the Firth of Forth.

Gray, now 32, plies his trade as a central defender alongside the young Kevin James and the partnership has formed the bedrock for Falkirk's Cup run.

He could be forgiven a jealous look at the towering Scottish Under-21 squad member as James sets out on the international high road. With England due to visit Poland next Saturday, one-cap wonder Gray will be assailed by cruel memories that took him almost five years to put into perspective.

"I just sort of screwed it wide of the post," he says, his mind drifting back to the moment in a European Championship qualifier against the Poles in 1991 when he blew England's best chance of the first half and blew his own chances of appearing for his country again.

Gray traces his slide in fortune to that match. Before his Poland mishap he had been in peak form, helping Palace reach the FA Cup final in 1990 and finish third in the top flight the following year.

"If I had scored that goal my career would have been much different," Gray says, without bitterness. As it was, the England manager, Graham Taylor, hauled him off at half-time. "Taylor said he was making a few technical changes and that was it," Gray said. "I was hurting real bad."

Taylor gave Gray instructions to belt the ball out of play if he got it early on. "I was a bit shocked to hear the manager say that," he says. "That for your first touch in international football you're kicking the ball out for a throw."

Despite that bizarre piece of coaching, and despite his strikingly brief England career, Gray has nothing but praise for Taylor. "I love Graham Taylor to death. Things just didn't go right for him."

Gray's fortunes plummeted after Poland. "I just tried too hard," he says. "I was trying to prove a point to myself."

He took out some of his frustrations on his stomach - "that was when I put the weight on" - and on the Palace manager, Steve Coppell, but primarily on Marco Gabbiadini who had replaced his close friend Ian Wright at Selhurst Park.

"I hated him," Gray says. "We sell Ian for pounds 2.5m to Arsenal and we buy this overweight guy from Sunderland."

Gabbiadini had a bad time at Palace. The fans dubbed him "Gabbia-donkey", he failed to score regularly and, worst of all, he spent most of his free time with his widgets.

"That's all I used to hear when we were getting changed," Gray says. "He used to talk widget beer, widgets in cans, and I just had the hump with it. I thought: `I've slogged my guts out for this club and we pay this money for this guy and he's talking about some widget in a can'."

It was not long before Gray escaped the obese widget expert and decamped for Terry Venables' Spurs in a pounds 1m deal. That it was Venables who bought him was particularly sweet, for Venables had been covering that Poland game for television.

"In the studio with Venners was big chin Jimmy Hill and he was giving me pelters," says Gray. "When Venners signed me he said, `You showed a lot of bottle and that's why I bought you'."

But what should have been the dream move for someone with international ambition turned into a nightmare. "It was the worst mistake I ever made," Gray says. "I turned down Wimbledon and if I'd gone there I wouldn't have had to change anything. I'm not a fancy dan."

Spurs were one of the few clubs where the powerhouse aspect of Gray's game would go down badly. He was duly packed off and, after an enjoyable spell in Spain with Malaga, he arrived at Falkirk.

"I felt like I was going through the motions," he says, "but now I've started to enjoy my football, more than for years."

That enjoyment, however, could be the end of his Falkirk stay. "I don't want to be playing in front of 2,500 people a week and I know I can still a job somewhere other than the Scottish First Division," says Gray, hoping that one day in the sun turns into an Indian summer.