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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Gray relishing the challenge
Darlington have no players, they've been told they may have to change their name, they've been relegated to the Northern League and 'home' games will be played at Bishop Auckland.
Furthermore, they are not even allowed to compete in the FA Cup or Vase next season.
It's just as well Martin Gray relishes a challenge.
Last weekend he was announced as Darlington's new manager, his first such position having been an assistant for much of the last decade, and he starts from scratch, tasked with kick-starting a climb back up the leagues.
"It's good to have a challenge," said Gray, who was made manager almost 12 years to the day since playing for the club at Wembley.
"It's nice to fall into a successful club, but I've got a chance to formulate something myself and the board have allowed me the chance to put a team together off the pitch too. Had they not I wouldn't have taken the job.
"I've had loads of people wishing us well, it's been amazing. Dave Penney, David Hodgson, Marco Gabbiadini, Denis Smith, Malcolm Crosby, they've all been on saying things like 'I know you'll be successful' and 'there's only you that would take that on'!"
He would have been forgiven for continuing to concentrate on his successful soccer school, the Martin Gray Football Academy which has blossomed since launching two years ago.
The demands of the academy were a primary factor in Gray distancing himself from Darlington position when Mark Cooper was sacked last October.
"It's all been down to timing," he said. "I looked at it the last time it came around and it wasn't right for various reasons. Now I feel it's the right time and a really good opportunity to make a big difference. It's a chance to do something unique.
"I've always had an affinity with the club, it's a passion of mine that has never gone away."
Being appointed manager marks a return to the club he has served for the best part of 13 years.
A player initially before becoming a youth coach, then assistant to both Hodgson and Penney. He left in 2009, following Penney to Oldham Athletic but, in a sense, Gray has never been away.
He continued to attend matches at The Northern Echo Arena, often carrying out scout reports, while he continues to live in the town, though he prefers to keep the exact location quiet: "A couple of bad results and I'll need security!"
Born in Fishburn two decades ago, the tough-tackling midfielder was spotted aged 18 by Sunderland playing for Ferryhill in the Northern League.
Signing for Denis Smith at Sunderland meant leaving behind a joinery apprenticeship at Wright's Construction in Sedgefield and signalled the start of a career that, after Roker Park, saw him play for Oxford United before returning to the North-East with Darlington.
Gray the player may have been more mallet than mahogany, but committed personalities are always in demand so he became an essential part of the framework at both Oxford and Darlington with whom he returned to the North-East in 1999.
He was among Hodgson's 'blue chip' players during the first days of the ill-fated Geoge Reynolds revolution, and in the process he turned down a chance to sign for Smith at West Brom.
A mainstay in the side that reached the Division Three play-offs in his first season, after 67 appearances Gray retired due to a back problem in 2001 aged only 30. He was soon looking after the club's youth team, overseeing a league title in 2004-05.
He continues to nurture raw talent with his football academy which means more than simply jumpers for goalposts in a park.
Gray's become head of football operations at Greenfield Community College in Newton Aycliffe having entered into an arrangement that offers students "specialised academy coaching".
He will combine his commitment to his academy with being Darlington manager which is classed as a part-time position. Colin Galloway, the club's football secretary, is the only full-time member of staff.
But Gray scoffs at the suggestion that he will be a part-time manager.
"We're going to be professional about everything," says Gray, whose phone intermittently beeps throughout the interview with potential new players returning calls. This month's phone bill won't be cheap.
"I've always had that work ethic and high standards. I made a career in the game by doing that. Denis Smith took me around the around country with him because of it.
"I'm hungry for success all the time, not just in football, but in everything in life.
"We're going to have such a professional approach which is how it should be. No disrespect to any other Northern League clubs, but we're going to do things how I've always done things.
"It's going to be a high standard at all times. The team will be named on a Wednesday night and not a Saturday afternoon, we'll work on shape in training, we'll have a kitman, and I'm hoping to get the team back into the town to train.
"It will be professional, that's how I'm going to attract players. I've had lots of players contact me, ex pros who've said 'I know what you're like Martin, can I be part of it'."
Helping with the professional approach is a four-strong backroom staff, all familiar to North-East football.
Brian Atkinson will be assistant manager, Sean Gregan player-coach, former Sunderland keeper Tony Norman will be goalkeeping coach and ex-Blyth boss Harry Dunn is chief scout.
"I've always been conscious of having the right people around you and I think I've got a really good blend among the staff," said Gray.
"They haven't come for big money. Sean works for my academy two days a week, he travels from Manchester so he's part of what we're doing anyway. Three weeks ago when I first mentioned to him that I might be doing this he said straight away 'count me in'."
Returning to Darlington completes the circle for Gregan who took his first steps in senior football at Feethams.
The Billingham-born 38-year-old emerged from the youth team as a centre-back in the early 1990s and was part of the first Darlington team to play at Wembley in 1996.
Sold six months later to Preston, he was converted into a midfielder by David Moyes and enjoyed a fine career with West Brom and Leeds before ending his Football League days at Oldham - which is where he met Gray.
"When I went to Oldham with Dave, I hit it off with Sean straight away. He said 'when you get your first job wherever it is I want to be part of that team'.
"I nearly had the Oldham job after Dave was sacked and then I was almost in at Stockport County. He was gutted that Stockport did not come off, but I came to him with the Darlo job and he said 'let's get on with it'.
"He said he'd never been coached like that since playing under David Moyes at Preston.
"He played every game for the first time in his career and he was first class. He didn't even get suspended!"
Gregan, in line to double up as a player next season, and Gray weren't strangers to an enforced absence via the referee's notebook, although the manager reckons he's calmed down.
He said: "I've got a softness to me. You can't be saying 'it's my way or the highway' everyday. Ten years ago I was too heavy, but you listen to people and you improve your style slightly.
"I can still be tough with players and they will know that.
"It's about managing people. In time you mellow, but it's always there.
"Brian is very mild, but there's got to be some discipline and there's got to be expectations. You have to treat people how you would like to be treated yourself."
With the backroom staff arranged, several players lined up and the club's temporary home this week switched from Shildon to Bishop Auckland, the 'new' Darlington is taking shape.
He added: "I'm in it for the long-haul and in four or five years I want still to be here, doing what we're doing and being on the up.
"One of the big things that stood out for me when I met the chairman was that he had the club at heart. There's nothing in it for him, there's no financial gain to be made, he was talking sense.
"He's a businessman and I was really impressed with him and how the club is going to be run - by the fans. The vibe that I got was that it's going to be really positive, something special.
"The fans have had to put up with the worst times at any club I can ever remember.
"They've gone from a play-off final 12 years ago to the Northern League, but they will still be there in the Northern League.
"It would be good to give them something to smile about and give them something to enjoy."
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