Thursday 28 June 2012
A decade of AFC Wimbledon heroes: Ryan Gray
Ryan Gray was a star of AFC Wimbledon's early days as he mixed silky skills on the wing with a real will to win. His ability earned the adulation of the Dons faithful as they had a chant dedicated to his trademark runs down the wing. He also demonstrated his flair with THAT double nutmeg, which ended up on Soccer AM. The official website has reintroduced our series of features on the heroes of AFC Wimbledon's 10 years as we build up to Saturday, August 4. That is the day of Simon Bassey's testimonial match against a West Ham XI, but Ryan and several other AFC Wimbledon heroes will feature in an exhibition match alongside the fans to mark 10 years of the club. Here, Ryan shares his thoughts on the moments that made him such a favourite.
Best moment at Wimbledon?
That would have to be the cup final win against North Greenford (Combined Counties Premier Challenge Cup) at Woking. There were over 3,500 there and the buzz from the fans when we got off the coach was brilliant. We went back to the club after we won it for a few drinks with the fans and I will never forget the day as a whole. It was the first cup final that Wimbledon had been in for a number of years and we managed to win it 4-1. Wimbledon fans took up the whole of the end behind the goal at Woking with over 2,000 supporters. When the players went out for the warm-up all the fans were singing our names. They used to chant a song about me going down the wing. I remember getting to the ground early and there was a great atmosphere, the club was trying to go up the non league pyramid and it felt like the start of something.
Beating Walton and Hersham (Surrey Senior Cup) because they were big rivals that season. They ran us close in the Ryman League that season as they came runners-up when we won it under Dave Anderson. That season was a test for us as people were wondering if we could do it at a higher level with a new manager. But we ended up winning the league and cup double and to beat our nearest challengers in extra-time was brilliant. It was also the match when I did a double nutmeg and it ended up on Soccer AM. One of our fans recorded it and sent it in to Sky Sports for the “Nuts” section of the programme that featured professional players doing nutmegs. I remember watching the programme and waiting for the clip, but they showed Ryan Giggs and Steven Gerrard and I thought I had not made it. Thankfully, they did do a special feature on mine after that so I did not miss out.
How did your move to Wimbledon come about?
I had played here, there and everywhere before Wimbledon. I started off at Fulham and had two years there as a YTS and three years as a professional. I did not get a first-team game as it was at the time when the club was just starting to get money when Kevin Keegan was manager and they were signing players like Paul Peschisolido. I also played in America too for Louisiana Outlaws, but I was back here playing for Whyteleafe when Wimbledon came in for me. I was player of the year there and one of my team-mates Gareth Graham left to join Wimbledon. The manager Terry Eames asked me if I would like to come along too and I did not need much convincing. With the fan base at the club, it was an easy question to answer. I had interest in me from clubs two or three divisions above, but due to my work commitments as an estate agent I wanted to stay local. The atmosphere of playing at AFC Wimbledon gave you a purpose. It made you want to get up on a Saturday morning and get ready to play, rather than playing in front of one man and his dog.
What was the key to AFC Wimbledon's success?
Support from the fans. Without this support, the club would not have achieved what it has during the past 10 years. The fans have been consistent in supporting the club during that time and have been patient over the years. They have not been to some of the best grounds, particularly in the early days, and they deserved the success that the club has had.
Why were you so loved by the Dons fans?
I think I was like Marmite in that people either loved or hated me. But whatever it took, I was determined to win, even if that meant me getting sent-off. People at the bar would sometimes come up to me and ask why I never played with a smile on my face, but I was a winner and that meant everything to me. I think the fans took to me because I was a bit flamboyant and because I had that will to win.
Any regrets about your time at Wimbledon?
Not really. Maybe I could have given it another season at Wimbledon, but I had to leave due to work commitments. It was my decision to leave, but Dave Anderson tried to keep me. I can remember leaving work at 2.00pm to get to a match at Maldon Town (now Maldon & Tiptree) and getting back at 2.00am. I was thinking that was a sign of things to come and I could not commit to it at the time. I ended up playing for Tooting and Mitcham as it was near to my home in Tooting Bec.
What do you think of the current situation at AFC Wimbledon?
I do not really know the existing squad, but I went to watch the match against Oxford United at home on Boxing Day and I keep an eye on the club by reading bits in newspapers. I always thought that for the club to do well, then the squad needed players who were capable of playing in a better league than what they are in, but that is obviously a lot more difficult now. In the early years we would play for peanuts just to play for AFC Wimbledon, but now for the players involved, it is their livelihoods at stake. I do not know whether Wimbledon can now attract players based on the draw of the club and the fan base. When I played there we were treated like professionals in terms of the training sessions, the tracksuits and everything about the club was bigger than elsewhere, but it is different now.
What is your current football involvement?
I stopped playing about two years ago at Kingstonian. My daughter is now two years old and when she was born I had too much on at home and with work commitments to play. I am looking forward to playing at Simon Bassey’s testimonial and I will probably make a fool of myself as I haven’t played for a while.