Stuart Gray was making only his fifth appearance for Celtic when he experienced the flash flood of emotions and anthems that is an Old Firm derby. In scale and atmosphere, Bootham Crescent, York, is light years removed from Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow, but when Gray passes that total in Rushden & Diamonds' colours there on Saturday it will be no ordinary Third Division fixture.
The exotically named Northamptonshire club are making their debut in the Football League, just nine years after the hybrid formed from Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds began life before 315 distinctly underwhelmed spectators in the Midland Division of the Southern League.
That same season, 1992-93, also saw Gray, who operates at left-back or in midfield, wear Celtic's hoops for the first time at senior level. Now, to the satisfaction of both parties, their wildly differing paths have converged.
Rushden's manager, the former England midfielder Brian Talbot, is benefiting from the former Scotland Under-21 player's know-how – gleaned at Celtic in the company of John Collins, Paul McStay and the "amazingly gifted" Jacki Dziekanowski and Paolo Di Canio – as well as a cultured left foot which means he could not deny his father is Eddie Gray, of Leeds United legend, even if he were so inclined.
For his part, Gray, who has signed a two-year contract since arriving on loan from Reading during the final push for promotion from the Nationwide Conference last spring, is thriving on the fresh challenge.
"At my age I just needed first-team football so I wasn't worried about going non-League," said the 27-year-old, whose accent reflects his Yorkshire upbringing rather than his Caledonian pedigree. "I was aware of the name Rushden & Diamonds – my dad came here with Leeds in the FA Cup [as assistant manager to David O'Leary] and told me it was a superb set-up – but I didn't know where it was, or even that it was a merger of teams from two small towns." If there was a culture shock, it was not the one Gray might have expected on entering the world of Leigh RMI and Dover Athletic. Instead of part-time players, cinder banks behind the goals and grimy changing-rooms, he found that Nene Park was a state-of-the-art monument to the ambition and vision of the chairman and founder, the Dr Martens footwear tycoon Max Griggs.
"The training facilities are probably the best I've come across, with immaculate pitches," said Gray. "The stadium is small but very modern, with room to expand. We even get our own dressing-gowns!" Praise indeed, given his stint at Celtic Park (where he served five of the 12 managers in their 113-year history) and the Gray clan's ties with Elland Road. Eddie's brother and fellow Scotland cap, Frank, played for Leeds, as did Frank's son Andrew, who now plays for Nottingham Forest, so Stuart was steeped in the club from a tender age.
"I saw my dad in his heyday in the 1970s though I was too young to know anything about it. I've seen him on video and he was a pretty decent player [he chuckles at the understatement]. There was always football talk in our house, but to me he was just my dad, who happened to be in the game. When he became player-manager, from '82 to '85, we went to every match, home and away, so I grew up supporting Leeds. And Celtic."
Eddie, according to his son, is "Celtic daft", as was the Leeds No 2's own late father, but did not try to influence Stuart when they pursued him as a schoolboy. "He never pushed me into football in the first place – I was kicking a ball about as a toddler – and it was the same when I had a choice of clubs. He just told me to go wherever felt right."
"From the age of 13 I used to go up to Glasgow and train twice a month and play for their Boys' Club side on Saturdays. I took the train on Friday evening after school and stayed with my granny in Castlemilk." While it was Billy McNeill who took Gray on to the full-time staff, Liam Brady was the manager who gave him his first-team chance and Tommy Burns who picked him in defence against Rangers in the New Year's game in 1995. A proud Eddie was present to savour the tumult as Radio Five Live's summariser.
"I'm not a nervous person so the noise didn't worry me," recalled Gray Jnr. "I'd played before 30,000-plus at Ibrox in a reserve derby, and that's a fierce game. I made a mistake early on and our keeper, Packy Bonner, shouted at me. I saw his lips move but couldn't hear a word. But I did OK and really enjoyed it, more so because we came from behind to draw."
In search of the elusive regular game he followed Burns to Reading for £100,000 in 1998. The same desire informed his decision when Talbot came in for him, and, despite an Achilles strain which led to his being rested for Monday's 3-1 defeat by West Ham in a friendly, Gray's sense of anticipation is building as the next stage in Rushden's rise draws closer. "York is close to Harrogate where I was born and brought up," he said, "so my mum will definitely be there.
"I've only been at this club a while but I'm aware it's an unbelievable story and a special place. A lot of that comes from the owner. He's a multi-millionaire yet most days he comes down to the ground to have breakfast with the players. And he wants to be called Max, not Mr Chairman.
"Going into the League is a great romantic adventure for him and for the fans. It's different for the players because most of us have been there before. Once the season starts, we're there to do a job." Rushden & Diamonds: not Celtic and Rangers, but a new firm with age-old imperatives and dreams.Reuse content