Late starter looks to Cup giant-killing to cap career

Neil Grayson is still going strong at 40 as Phil Shaw discovered on the eve of the FA Cup
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The Independent Football

Life begins at 40, they say, and Neil Grayson trusts that the adage will hold true as far as his relationship with the FA Cup is concerned. The Stafford Rangers striker reached the landmark this month, and as the oldest player in this weekend's first-round ties, he has the opportunity to record an overdue giant-killing when Chester City visit the Conference North club tomorrow.

Chester may not be as substantial a scalp as, say, Sheffield Wednesday, and there would be greater kudos for Stafford in beating neighbouring Walsall or Port Vale. However, the League Two team's manager, Ian Rush, is the most famous individual involved at this stage of the competition.

For Grayson, a journeyman centre-forward in more ways than one, knocking out the former Liverpool, Juventus and Wales legend would be the pinnacle of an unusual career.

Grayson's story could be titled the homeliness of the long-distance frontrunner. The 10 clubs he has served have been scattered around England, with several in the West.

Yet the Yorkshireman has maintained the family home no further south than Chesterfield. "I don't like to think how much I've spent on petrol, "he said before Tuesday-night training at Stafford, "because it would kill me."

Before returning to a relatively local side this year - Stafford is a trifling 60 miles each way and an even shorter drive from his job as a double-glazing fitter in Derby - Grayson was active with Forest Green Rovers in Gloucestershire.

That meant a twice-weekly round trip of 260 miles for training. Before that, he played for Cheltenham Town, scoring their first Football League goal.

"That was a bit of a slog, too," he recalled," and I was full-time there so I did the trek nearly every day. Some days you'd just sit in traffic jams, though the boredom wasn't too bad when you were picking up other players en route. There could be three or four of you so you could have a laugh. We used to fight over the back seat - whoever won could lie down and have a sleep.

"I got a few fines for lateness at Forest Green. We travelled with a lad called Gareth Stoker and if a journey took two hours, Gareth allowed himself one hour, 59 minutes. If that. Occasionally it could be lonely and tiring, but my enthusiasm never wilted. It's what you make of it."

Grayson attributes the enduring desire to tangle with defenders half his age to being a late starter. When Rush was rampaging through Europe, he was playing rugby league for a pub team in York.

Switching to the round-ball code, he joined Rowntree Mackintosh, whose roots in a confectionery factory led to opponents demanding to know whether they had bribed the referee with sweets.

"I never thought about making a living from football," Grayson admitted. "But in my mid-twenties, I was working for British Rail when Doncaster Rovers rang asking me to play for their reserves. At first I thought it was a wind-up.

"Billy Bremner, who was manager, invited me to train with them on Good Friday and to Rovers' game next day. When I got there, he said: 'Can you play?' I was in shock! I was a striker who'd started as a left-back. Billy had me pencilled in for the right of midfield. I said yes of course."

Fifteen years later, he has never risen above the fourth tier, having been freed by Cheltenham and Northampton after helping them to play-off final wins at the Millennium Stadium and Wembley respectively. Yet the scoring knack ensured there was always another club, and another cup run, waiting to be embarked upon.

"At Cheltenham we put out two teams from higher divisions, Oldham and Burnley, before losing 1-0 at West Brom in the fifth round.

But I only got on as substitute in those games. Earlier, when I was with Hereford, we were drawn against Brighton six months after they sent us out of the League. We won 2-1 and I got both goals so I was the local hero for a few weeks."

How do a semi-pro side beat full-time opponents? Grayson tells of one manager who reputedly urinated in the visitors' pot of half-time tea, but believes cramped grounds and inclement weather are more common allies. "Forest Green's ground was on top of a hill. In the wind and rain, teams didn't fancy it.

"But Stafford's facilities won't be a shock to Chester because their stadium is quite small. If you're a reasonable footballing side, like we are, you need everyone to play to their maximum and the League team to have an off day."

Stafford's manager is a former Northampton colleague, Phil Robinson, who was born in the town and followed Rangers to Wembley in the FA Trophy final as a boy.

Both hoped Rush's presence would attract live TV coverage, but Sky went for Thurrock against Oldham. "It's a good draw all the same, a League side at home and a decent chance of progressing," said Grayson.

"The FA Cup may not matter so much to the top clubs now, but to me it's as important as ever. When I didn't play in it last season, because I was injured, I felt deprived."

Grayson scored against Peter Shilton in the former England goalkeeper's 1,001st League game and would like to get the better of another famous name or two before retiring. Not that he is hanging up the boots and car-keys just yet.

"When I hit 40, one of the lads said: 'Bloody 'ell, you're old enough to be my granddad'. They don't give me too much stick, though; they know I'll sort them out in training. It's funny in matches - if I run past someone you can hear our fans telling them how old I am.

"For years, people have been asking me: 'When are you going to taking up coaching?' But I'm not interested in that. I just want to play and keep going as long as I can."