The men we couldn’t do without

Dave Collett writes about a legend, and what came next.

Andy Gray

There’s a special feeling that comes when you have a player every single side in the league would want in their starting line-up. The feeling is so special because it’s so rare. Certainly, since the sixties, there were few indeed who might qualify. One top candidate would be Andy Gray, a player whose vivid times at Villa Park divided opinions like few others.

Once again, chance played a big part in Gray’s arrival at B6. The first question to be asked would have to be, was he even needed? Villa’s promotion in 1975 owed a lot to the attacking triumverate of Keith Leonard, Brian Little and Ray Graydon. To use the comedic term, Leonard was very much the straight man to the brilliant punchlines of the other two. While chipping in with goals himself, he supplied both of his quick, sharp-shooting team-mates with the ideal feed-ins that they thrived on. Two fine players with a combined total of more than fifty goals are going to attract plenty of media attention; both of them should have paid royalties to the less glamorous Leonard.

Strangely enough, the start of the 1975-76 season looked like Keith’s time to shine. Not content with setting them up for others, and notwithstanding playing at a higher level, he scored three times in his opening seven league games. There would no doubt have been others, but the third was scored in what proved to be his last game. Having stayed on the pitch and scoring despite taking a heavy Arsenal tackle in the second half, he was never to play top-class football again, a cruel outcome for such a promising player, plucked from non-league football.

Ron Saunders wasn’t to know the severity of the injury at the time but knew he would need a replacement, and quick. He settled his attentions on a goal-grabbing young striker from Dundee United who had already been linked with several English clubs; Andy Gray. A fee of £110,000 represented a club record at the time and a decent amount for a young player unproven in a new league.

From the first, it was clear that Saunders had hit the jackpot. Gray’s energy and desire to get on the end of crosses and to make life as uncomfortable as possible for opposing centre-halves soon made him a big terrace favourite. There was a smattering of goals as well, which always eases the passage for a newcomer expected to contribute to the goal-tally. Not that the first season went so smoothly for his club. In fact, Villa needed a good unbeaten finish to the season to make sure they moved well clear of the relegation zone.

Years earlier, the legendary Liverpool boss Bill Shankly had declared that Villa were a club ready to break out and push on to be one of the biggest in the league with a team to match. Now, the predictions came true. Even today, there are Villa fans who rate the side of 1976-77 as the best they have ever seen. The stats say they had a point. Right from the first Saturday, it became apparent that Villa Park was to be an unwelcoming place to be if you were wearing an away shirt. The goals surged like a flood and sailing through came Andy, with no fewer than eighteen to his credit by the new year.

Whether it was that trusty left foot or those awesome hanging headers that left defenders watching helplessly, the toll mounted. The total included five braces and one memorable hat-trick against a good Ipswich side that left the home side in first place. Their long-time boss, Bobby Robson, reflected on a game where he felt his side had given as good as the home side, but that Gray had been all the difference and that if he carried on like this, then Villa would stay at the top.

Home form remained more than good enough to support a title challenge. Villa didn’t lose so many games that season, but six of them were matches where we got nothing, despite having taken the lead. Half of those would have been enough to keep us in contention. In the end, two memorable cup runs brought glory along with tired limbs and the realisation that while Saunders had built an awesome team, squad strength was lacking. An injury on a shocking playing surface at Derby put Gray out for over a month, but he kissed the Holte End a fond farewell with a last game hat-trick against West Brom to complete the league programme in the most emphatic manner.

With some serious strengthening over the summer, Villa fans might have been excused for licking their lips in anticipation of the great things that were on the agenda for the new season. Sadly, things didn’t work out as well as hoped. Opposition teams had spent the summer looking at ways of stopping Villa and their main goal-threat. One involved kicking Andy a bit harder. The accumulation of knocks meant he missed over ten games overall. A goal tally of eighteen can hardly be regarded as failure, but it was a season of fits and starts where occasional outstanding results could be followed by poor scores and performances against unrated sides. At the start of autumn, there might have been a big group thinking that the league title could be coming to the Midlands. They would have been right, too – but it was Clough and Taylor’s Nottingham Forest who were celebrating success, not Villa.

The most significant moment of that season, though, came not when Andy Gray was kicking a ball for Villa, but when he was unable to. One of Andy’s spells of absence meant that he missed the home leg of Villa’s quarter final Uefa Cup game against the mighty Barcelona. This could have been a good thing, as the visitors laid about them with great gusto, bringing a rare complaint from Saunders, hardly reluctant in putting committed teams on the park, regarding the away team’s excessive physicality. A stirring late fightback had seen Villa pull back from a two-goal deficit, giving real hope that Villa could progress to at least the semi-final with a win at the Camp Nou. Another big step in the right direction would be if Gray was fit to play in that second leg.

According to Gray’s account, he was on the treatment table on the Sunday before the return match, when Saunders, who apparently rarely appeared at the training ground on a Sunday, came into the room and demanded that Gray tell him there and then whether he would be fit for Wednesday’s game. Surprised to be asked such a question, all Gray could do was to inform his boss that he was feeling stronger, that of course he wanted to play, but didn’t know for sure that he would have fully recovered by the time of the match. Saunders’s immediate response was to tell Gray that in that case, he would not be playing and walked off. How to make sense of all this isn’t easy. The fact that Saunders was such a driven personality, a man who thought players could push themselves up steep sandhills in pre-season training until they vomited if they only had the will to do so, gives a clear idea of his outlook. Perhaps this world view extended to overcoming injury problems; if a player wanted to play, then he would play. What the Villa physio thought of this isn’t known.

Both manager and striker had a voracious desire to achieve great things, so in that regard they should have been soul-brothers of a kind. Perhaps Saunders’s unyielding belief in the team ethic led to a certain resentment of Gray who had, through no fault or apparent desire of his own, became the focus of media attention through his vivid achievements at Villa. For Gray, there was no issue with understanding that a less glamorous player, like the indefatigable workhorse Frank Carrodus, was just as important a player as he was. The media didn’t -and still don’t- see it that way and so Saunders fumed a little at the excessive exposure of his ‘star’ player.

Whether this was the cause or not, what followed widened the potential rift into a yawning chasm. All managers have their ‘favoured’ journalists who they can feed their version of events to, all in the knowledge that the sources of the stories will be protected. Saunders found one such to relate his tale that Gray didn’t want to play against Barcelona in the club’s biggest game of the season and so had let the team and the fans down badly. This ‘story‘ wormed its way into the sporting rounds, despite the lack of social media at this time. Gray found out, then sought out the journalist who had been given the story and he confessed that it had come straight from the horse’s mouth. Andy was understandably livid and made his desire to leave known, citing the fact that he could no longer work under this manager.

Sadly for the striker, there were few clubs who would have been able to afford the massive fee needed to tempt Villa to part with such a talismanic player, an idol of the Holte End. Not that Villa were in any mood to allow such a popular player to leave. Neither, it seems, was the manager who had so recently ostracised him. Gray himself was not the type of person to sulk and stroll around the pitch to try and force a move. A brilliant diving header at Coventry proved to be the winner on Gray’s comeback but though Villa ended the season with a run of five wins, they couldn’t quite close the gap with the European qualifiers and had to settle for eighth place.

With Gray somehow missing out on World Cup selection he was fully rested for the new season and duly celebrated with the only goal in the opening game against Wolves. This was one of three goals in his first four appearances but then Villa were hit by a whirlwind of injury troubles the like of which had not been seen before. Every week seemed to add another casualty to the list and at times the missing players total reached double figures. Gray was not exempt. A bad challenge in a cup-tie against Luton put him out for four months. When he returned, he helped his side to a derby win against doomed Small Heath, then grabbed a goal in the next game, a 3-0 win against Bolton. All the goals came before the break.

During the interval, Saunders subbed Gray, allowing the player to nip off early to open up his new nightclub venture, The Holy City Zoo. This may go down as the most un-Ron thing that Saunders ever did! Whether the gesture was meant as a peace offering after the fall out of the previous year, we don’t know. Within a few weeks, Villa were stuffed 4-0 by Clough’s Forest and Gray didn’t play again that season. Fifteen appearances and six goals was a thin return indeed after the rich goalscoring vein of the previous three years. With dark murmurings regarding the state of Gray’s knee some wondered, if only in whispers, whether now would be a good time to move the player on.

Wolves manager John Barnwell had been making enquiries about Andy for some time. Saunders, clearly believing that the Wanderers didn’t have the wherewithal to make a serious bid, fended off the approach by saying that Gray’s price was “more than you could afford.” Indeed, that seemed to be the case – until Manchester City offered over a million quid for talented wide player Steve Daley.

Suddenly, the Gray deal appeared doable and, once a little tug-of-war between Barnwell and his board over the state of Gray’s scarred knee had been won, the boss had his man. Gray subsequently went on a scoring spree, notching twelve league goals amongst the cup strikes, his injuries suddenly seeming to be a thing of the past. With a roll-call of experienced pros to call on, Wolves shocked a few, finishing in sixth place as well as lifting the League Cup with Gray, inevitably, scoring the Wembley winner.

Saunders had responded to the transfer with the memorable quote: “If I was the head of an engineering firm and I bought a new machine for £100,000 and that machine kept breaking down and I sold it for £1.5 million, you would tell me I was a genius.” This one had aged well but at the time it didn’t seem so funny to some. Along with the sales of Gidman and Deehan, some were scratching their heads re the manager’s transfer policy. Happily, there was no internet to explode in those days, but there was a former chairman, willing to play to the crowd by criticising a manager who seemed to be happy to “sell our best players to our local rivals”. An EGM was called, but by the time it was convened, Saunders had already given his answer. After a poor start which saw Villa well down the table, some of that Gray money was spent on midfielder Des Bremner from Hibs and striker David Geddis from Ipswich.

Des went on to do rather well over the next five years or so; Geddis, though a willing trier, struggled to establish a relationship with his fellow strikers. The right-back slot was filled without a fee exchanging hands – attacking wide man Kenny Swain was tried at the back and was an enormous success. Along with the established core of the side and a young striker showing some promise in Gary Shaw, this team had already turned the corner and when the EGM took place, were in the middle of an eleven-game unbeaten run. Despite this, a lot of small shareholders voted for Doug Ellis (and so, effectively, for the sacking of the manager) but Ron came through to continue the good work. He did it so well that Villa finished seventh, just outside the European places, highly impressive after such a disruptive and unpromising start to the season.

With the regular side containing three or four youth team players, it was now a case of spotting the odd area that needed improvement and then spending the money wisely. The last bit’s the hardest part. Thanks to Wolves, there was still plenty of cash left to give Saunders the means to bring in the striker we needed. Rumours came and went regarding the signing of the giant Mick Ferguson from Coventry. Graeme Sharp was another name mentioned. In the end he put his money on a second division striker by the name of Peter Withe, dubbing the new signing “the last piece of the jigsaw.” That quote still feels about 110% right, even now.

We all know what happened next and over the next few years we were probably too busy celebrating to crow “Andy who?” to any Wolves fans. Once again, losing your star player can seem like the end of the world, but if you keep the best of the rest and bring in high-quality replacements and keep that conveyor-belt of talent running from your youth system all the way into the first XI, you can end up with a better team than ever before. Such are the benefits of having a manager and a back-up team who know exactly what they’re doing.