Andy Gray represented Crystal Palace, Tottenham and England over his career, but his journey to the top began with Casuals in the early 1980s. He told Dominic Bliss all about it.
How did you come to sign for Corinthian-Casuals as a teenage talent in January 1983?
I was playing on a Tuesday night at King’s Cross for the TV Times, and a lot of the guys there used to play for the Corinthian-Casuals Vets. So I started to play for them on a Sunday and, basically, they said, “What are you doing here? You should be playing for our first team!”
Then I got introduced to Billy Smith [Corinthian-Casuals manager], who came and watched me, and he invited me to train at Colliers Wood. So that’s how I was introduced to Corinthian-Casuals.
You’d been at Palace before…
Yeah, I was at Palace from when I was 11 until I was 16, then got released. The guy who brought me to Palace, John Griffin, went to Brentford, so he took me with him and I signed apprenticeship there, but I only lasted four months because I kept coming in late – I was coming from Brixton all the way down to Brentford.
So the manager, Freddie Callaghan, and Chopper Harris, gave me the boot. I was about 16-and-a-half, and I went out of football for about a year. That’s when I started playing with my mates at King’s Cross, for the TV Times.
How did you settle in at Corinthian-Casuals after all that?
When I got into the first team I did really well. I don’t know how many goals I scored, but it was quite a few. I was playing up front with Bernie Merron, and he used to score loads of goals.
Ron King used to be assistant manager. He used to look after me very well – nice guy. He kept me focused and he was a good motivator. I used to work for him, as it goes, as a stencil cutter for Displaycraft in Brixton Hill, but he used to let me get away with liberties because he knew that I had a chance, so he just kept me on the straight and narrow.
Were your hopes and dreams of top-flight football still there, or had you given up at that point?
If I’m being completely honest with you, I didn’t sit at home and say I wanted to be a professional footballer, but I knew I was good at it. That was the only thing I was good at in life. But I didn’t put any pressure on myself. I enjoyed it, and with that enjoyment it just led onto bigger and bigger things.
You were crucial in a run that took us to the first round of the FA Cup in 1983/84. Along the way, you scored two against Southall, then another against Bognor Regis. We also had Alan Pardew in the side then, and he scored the winner against Merthyr Tydfil, before we took Bristol City to a replay in the first round. What do you remember about that run?
If I’m being honest with you, what sticks in my mind was at Molesey – where we played Merthyr Tydfil. There was a bit of trouble, and I’ll never forget it… some guy ran on the pitch from their supporters, but he had one leg!
But, yeah, it was a good run, we had a good team, and I think we had 2,500 at Dulwich Hamlet [against Bristol City] and it was special, believe me. I know I went on to play in an FA Cup final, and play in a Scottish Cup final too, but that was special.
The build-up to the game was brilliant. I think they showed reels 80 years old. All sorts have played for this club. So, anyone lucky enough to play for Casuals, believe me, dreams can happen from the fact that you play for Corinthians. There are so many connections down the pipeline, it’s unreal.
What are your memories of that goalless draw against Bristol City, which forced a replay?
To be honest with you, I don’t think I was in the game the way that I would have liked to. I know that I came off the pitch knowing that I could have done more, I could have been provided more chances. That was one of the first times that I put pressure on myself because I knew I was close to going to a league team – I didn’t know which one, but I know I was very, very close. Then, obviously, having the opportunity to play against a league team… well, the two games didn’t really go brilliantly for me. The second game we just got hammered 4-0 and we were just too tired.
You and Alan Pardew played for us in that game, then both scored in an FA Cup semi-final for Palace against Liverpool seven years down the line. How much of a role has that competition played in your life?
It’s played a big part. To think, after being beaten 4-0 on the Tuesday night, and still working at Displaycraft, could I have gone to bed that night thinking, “Hmm, yeah, maybe in seven years’ time I’ll be in a Cup final? Or playing against Liverpool – arguably, then, one of the best teams in Europe – and beating them in a semi-final?
In hindsight, it’s incredible really. That’s a meteoric rise.
Yeah, but I come back to saying that playing for Corinthian-Casuals…it was a brand. It’s not like I came from Slough – no disrespect to Slough – or any other non-league side. It’s Corinthian-Casuals. If you put Corinthian-Casuals’ name up against anyone – even Liverpool – people know it. They’ve got a Corinthians in Brazil, which they formed.
We just fell short of the promotion places at the end of that season, and then that whole team fell apart as we couldn’t secure a permanent ground and got kicked out of the Isthmian League. That was the end of your time here, as you moved onto bigger things. But before we move onto the rest of your career, I have to ask you about one particular game at Vicarage Road, when we played a Watford team led by Graham Taylor in the last-ever Sheriff of London Charity Shield tie in 1983. Do you remember that?
Oh, yeah! That was a centenary game [of the founding of the Casuals]. We wore the old-fashioned kit – old Corinthians tops with the big, long shorts! I would love to get some pictures of my time here because I haven’t got any. There should be pictures of that particular game. I think we had seven or eight thousand people there – it could have been even more. The ironic thing about that…Taylor buys me a few years later for Villa.
He later called you up to the England squad and capped you in a Euro 92 qualifier against Poland. What was that like?
Do you know what? If I’m being totally honest with you, that was the worst thing to ever happen to me. Seriously. I don’t know what it was, but all through my career, I was going up, up. Then I got to the level where I was one of the best midfield players in the country.
Prior to getting the call, I played at Liverpool, we beat them 2-1, and I got dragged into the boot room.
The gaffer said to me, “Graham Taylor wants to speak to you.”
And I’m thinking, “What does he want to speak to me for?”
So I went in there and he said, “Son, I’m playing you. Don’t say anything – the press release will be out on Monday that you’re in the England squad, but I wanted to tell you that you’re playing.”
After the team came out and I was in it…well, you know when you watch movies and they want to show someone’s popular? No exaggeration, the phone rang, so I picked it up, took the call, said “Thank you”, then I put it down… and it started ringing again. It was like that for two hours, non-stop.
That always stuck with me, because when things didn’t go so well that phone didn’t ring the same way!
What did you learn from playing non-league football that helped you at the top?
That’s a difficult question because it’s just going out and expressing yourself in non-league. If you get the ball in the right areas, then you’re looking to get by them, you’re looking to attack them and let’s see if they’re good defenders. A lot of guys don’t want to get up to them and you think, “Why didn’t you just test them?” It was different for me – if you gave me the ball in a certain area, that’s it, I’m going at you!
No one really puts any mad pressure on you, but it’s for yourself, for your own pride, that you want to do something. It’s a good stepping stone because it’s all about confidence.
When you reflect on everything now, what does Corinthian-Casuals mean to you?
It means the world to me. I suppose the people that were at the club back then, I don’t know if half of them are still alive now. It was an older lot, and you guys now are younger, and obviously you’ve got the bug for the club and the history.
I always look out for Corinthians and I follow you guys on Twitter as well to find out the results and that. It means the world to me, this club. Yeah, I went onto bigger and better things, but without this club, none of it would have happened, believe me.
Listen to Andy Gray, Tony Finnigan and Alan Pardew recall that memorable FA Cup run and the winning mentality fostered by Billy Smith. Find Billy’s Heroes, Series 2 Episode 2 of Broadway to Brazil, on the player below, on our Podcasts page or on all podcast apps.