From humble beginnings Barry Gray is ready for the Cliftonville challenge
BARRY Gray imagined a different sporting career. Up until his mid-teens all that mattered was Gaelic football.
A St John Bosco’s clubman, the Newry native decided to get involved with local soccer club Midway United.
From that point on, he never lifted another O’Neill’s football as he threw himself into managing a couple of the soccer club's youth teams.
“I didn’t start playing football until I was about 14 or 15 because I was GAA orientated,” explains Gray.
“The local community centre had a team called Midway United – a friend of mine was involved in it. They would have been Mid-Ulster League at that time. I played a wee bit for their senior team and then I got involved in coaching some of the youth teams and it really just started from there."
Regarded as a solid footballer, Gray admits he never had any great designs on playing at a high level because he got a greater kick out of coaching.
“I didn’t play in any way seriously and that was because I came into soccer so late, so I didn’t have any real drive to play at a high level.
“But when I started coaching I really enjoyed it. I brought the same [Midway United] team right through to U18 and I brought the whole team to Newry Reserves. That was the stipulation that we were able to bring the team with us.”
Gray was at the Newry Showgrounds during the managerial tenures of Roy McCreadie, Roy Coyle and Paul Millar before he decided to move to Warrenpoint Town.
When he first joined ‘Point, in 2005, he planned to give the Mid-Ulster Football League club a year.
He ended up staying for 11 years.
“Warrenpoint were just treading water and not doing a big pile one way or another. So I went in with the notion of giving it a year and to see what would come off it.
“I suppose with everything I do, I jump in with two feet and everything else. The club was open for leadership and I fell into it. It wasn’t planned."
It was at the time the Irish League structures had become democratised.
There was a pathway for intermediate teams to reach the top league.
Sometimes, though, the journey is better than the destination.
“When you’re at the lower levels it’s not as business-like,” Gray says.
“Some might say it’s easier to enjoy when you’re at that level. It was a similar scenario for me at Warrenpoint.
“I was never under the same pressures as other managers because of my relationship with the club.”
It reached the stage where Warrenpoint Town and Barry Gray were one in the same thing.
Without Gray’s input, Warrenpoint would never have reached the Premiership.
They made a bit of a splash when they knocked Cliftonville out of the Irish Cup in January 2011, which signalled the end of Eddie Patterson’s time in charge at Solitude.
Two years later, they beat Donegal Celtic in a play-off to win a place in the Premiership.
“I was managing a team that regularly won – which is always nice whether you are a player, manager or supporter – but obviously when you come into Premiership circles that changes.
“And the down side is the local-ness of it tends to disappear more. Warrenpoint would have been a community club. So you lose that. It’s difficult that crossover from a community club to a professional club. You want the best of both worlds but it’s extremely difficult.”
From being top dogs in the intermediate ranks, Gray’s side faced perennial relegation battles in the top flight.
“Was the club ready for Premiership football? No. Was the team ready? Probably not,” he suggests.
“The other question was: would they ever be ready for it?
“We were lucky at the time because the whole pyramid system had come in and I think we were the first team to be promoted from junior football.
“We could regret it forever if we didn’t try and get up to the Premiership…
“But in the Premiership we were losing games. And it was probably more frustrating when we narrowly lost games.
“Everyone was complimentary about our style of play but we could only get through 60 or 70 minutes before conceding. While it was good to be in the Premiership, that kind of scenario was difficult. My nature is preparation and making sure we can compete…”
After 11 years on the sidelines, Gray called a halt last October and handed over the reins to former Ballymena striker Matthew Tipton.
The 37-year-old had burned himself out.
Until the Cliftonville job came up, Gray had planned on remaining as a director at the Milltown club.
“For me, the journey has been long. If we hadn’t been relegated last year I would have stepped down anyway… Things were busy off the field, and what you had to do off the field always impact on how you manage, and I found I was managing more for the club than the team. That’s not a healthy situation to be in.
“At the time of stepping down that was what was best for Warrenpoint because they were completely reliant on me as a manager and more. If we wanted to be strong and move forward the club needed to break that mould and experience what it’s like to have a normal manager in that isn’t as club-minded as what I would have been.
“I was extremely tired from a personal perspective from the previous season. When it becomes a chore it’s not good. I was ready to go.”
Gray was up for a new challenge and when the Cliftonville offer was firmed up, it was a no-brainer.
“I always said when I stepped down that I would never go back to manage Warrenpoint but I certainly didn’t feel I was finished managing,” he says.
“I probably didn’t think it would come around so quickly. I’ve always had a good relationship with Gerard [Lawlor]. You could always turn to him for advice.
“But even when the Cliftonville job came up, people thought: ‘He’s not going to be interested because he’s Warrenpoint.’
“That’s a prime example of the perception people had about me. This decision to take the Cliftonville job was mine alone.”
Cliftonville’s league opener is at home to Ards on Saturday August 12.
And while there have been some player exits Gray inherits a very good squad of players and has some excellent additions in the form of Brian ‘Bam’ Neeson, Liam Bagnall and Joe Gormley.
A successful businessman, Gray feels that his managerial skills in his work-life transfer quite easily to the changing room.
“I have two businesses and I employ the guts of 30 staff,” says the father-of-two.
“In the architectural business you’re constantly managing teams of people within the construction industry. There’s a way you have to be treated, a human way of doing things. Boundaries need to be set.
“That’s in my work life, that’s what I do on a daily basis and that’s what the industry demands. I carry a lot of that into football. I like to be organised, I like to know what we’re doing, where we’re going and why we’re doing it.”
As his first season in charge at Solitude approaches, Barry Gray has the road map at hand. It will be well sign-posted. It's up to the Cliftonville players to follow...