A look back to when Whitby Town lured Leeds United legend Eddie Gray .... and paid him with seafood!
How many football managers get paid in prawn and cod?
You’d imagine you could probably count the number of them on one hand, but one such man that did find his paygrade partially mixed with the North Sea takings was Eddie Gray.
But when you’re a non-league club looking to bring in a top name to help turn things around, the pay grades can often be a sticking point - so to give Gray a wage and some smoked kippers for his trouble week in, week out was a bargain by any stretch of the imagination - although it was probably an easier sell considering both Eddie and his wife Linda are big seafood lovers.
It has to be said that Whitby Town getting Eddie Gray to manage the club was nothing short of a coup, given their status as a Northern League club, although his previous outings for the club went some way to tempting him back.
“I enjoyed my first spell with Whitby,” Gray told the Evening Gazette upon his appointment.
“It’s a nice place and the people are friendly, so I was happy to accept the chance to be involved again.”
That previous spell had come following Gray’s sacking from the Leeds United job, when former team mate David Harvey took the Whitby post.
“To keep myself fit and retain some measure of football involvement, I played fourteen games for Whitby Town,” Gray recalled in his book.
“The highlight of that period was that we reached the FA Cup second round, where the run was terminated by York City.
“The match I remember the most was a midweek fixture at Chester-le-Street towards the end of the season because that was when I sustained the injury that finally ended my playing career when I was 38.
“One of the problems in playing at this level for someone like me was that you were always liable to come up against someone eager to be able to tell his friends that he had pulled you down a peg or two; and they were none too fussy about how they achieved it.”
The challenge that ended Gray’s playing career (almost, anyway – a few more Whitby appearances did follow) saw him wind up in Harrogate General Infirmary, though not until two days after the incident, in which he had ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament. The damage had been so bad, the operation to repair it had taken over eight hours.
Gray made a full recovery from the injury within four months, a timeframe considerably quicker than expected by his specialist, though the recovery wasn’t enough to see him return to the field, instead throwing himself into other jobs in the game - namely at Middlesbrough as a coach, before taking on the managerial role at Rochdale.
Following his time in the north-west, Gray returned to Yorkshire, taking over at Hull City following the departure of Brian Horton. A solid start saw the Tigers pull into mid-table and just five points short of the play-offs by February.
However, in the midst of an FA Cup run halted in the fifth round by Liverpool, league form started to tail off for Hull and Gray found himself disposed of by then-chairman Don Robinson after just one win in 18 at the back end of the 1988-99 campaign.
The former Leeds United star then took over in the midst of upheaval at the Turnbull Ground in September 1989, replacing Harry Wilson after his sacking, despite the season being only six weeks old.
With the way the Northern League was structured, relegation became a real threat for Whitby - the club weren’t willing to risk their divisional status so decided that acting fast would be in the best interests of the club.
Wilson had been vocal after being relieved of his duties, telling that week’s Whitby Gazette: “I feel I have been treated badly. They promised me a season and I didn’t get it.
“I had no backing from the committee on any of the players I wanted to bring in. I am glad to be out of it.”
The Seasiders had gone six games without a win and were languishing at the foot of the Northern League, though Gray set about changing the ethos at the club. And that was what the club wanted, a change in ethos.
Plenty of changes were made in the background to support Gray’s appointment, with the club’s committee massively reshuffled in a bid to improve the club’s fortunes.
“It was never a difficult decision to make when deciding who we wanted to take over,” Bob Scaife said.
“We had an idea that Eddie hadn’t returned to football since his sacking at Hull City during the summer and were delighted when he agreed to join us.
“We are sure that he can put the club back on the map.”
Gray took over the role on the Monday following the announcement, having to fly out to Lisbon to take part in a legends match before he could lead the Seasiders.
That Monday, Gray took training at the Turnbull Ground - assessing the players he had at his disposal before making his decisions on what he would need going forward, and how he could develop the side, much like he had done with the crop of young players at his disposal when at Leeds United.
Gray hit the ground running with a 4-1 win over Norton & Stockton Ancients in a League Cup Preliminary Round tie at Whitby.
The 41-year old even pulled his boots back on, just ten days after his first game, though couldn’t help to prevent a 1-0 defeat at Gretna. The signs were there though from an improving Whitby that everything would work out fine, despite the precarious league position.
“I encouraged the players to express themselves,” Gray said.
“I brought a striker by the name of Steve French back to Whitby from Eastfield in the Teesside League and he and our other striker, Paul Pitman, ended up with twenty-six league goals each.”
And encouraging the players to express themselves paid off not just for French and Pitman, but for the former Scotland international too.
Pitman, though, had admiration for his second manager at the Turnbull Ground.
“He wasn’t an aggressive person; he wouldn’t be shouting at people or players,” The Seasiders’ all-time leading goalscorer said.
“He just came and was very calm, collected and educated. You could tell.
“He just loved his football. He came across very well. To be honest, I wish he could have stayed a lot longer. I don’t know what his circumstances were or why he left but in the time he was there, he was quality.
“Even playing – he played a couple of games for us. I always remember a game he played at left-back for us against Alnwick, he never wasted a ball. The quality of the ball off his left peg was unbelievable. It was pinged into your feet every time.”
By the end of the season, Whitby were a different side under Gray and his new assistant manager, Robert Scaife Jr.
The Blues were playing with confidence, hauling themselves away from the basement of the Northern League up to a respectable 12th place finish, reaching the Joshua Tetley League Cup and North Riding Senior Cup finals.
Defeat was to come in the League Cup, as Billingham Synthonia proved too strong for Whitby, running out 5-2 winners on the night at Guisborough Town’s King George V ground.
However, five days later it was the Priorymen themselves coming up against Gray’s Whitby in the Senior Cup, at the Turnbull Ground.
This time, Gray was to get his hands on his first and only piece of silverware in the job; his side running out 1-0 winners after extra time, courtesy of a Steve Corden strike.
The Scotsman resigned shortly after the game, much to the disappointment of the Blues committee, supporters and player, due to external factors including the nationwide Soccer School he had set up alongside Ian St John Jr, and his commitments with Ken Stanley, the former agent of George Best.
The foundations laid, however, by Gray led the club to greater success. Bob Scaife took the Seasiders’ job on, taking the side to a Northern League title in 1992-93.
“I think the foundations were there for progression,” the Blues’ all-time appearance maker added.
“Eddie Gray obviously moved on to new pastures and young Bob Scaife came in”
“The foundations were there, but just needed tweaking. We didn’t realise at the time we had the best goalscorer in the Northern League, and with that tweaking we went on to win the Northern League.”