DUNCAN BRAY’S Non League journey began with FA Cup fever at Emley as a 16-year-old and ended on a major high after guiding Pontefract Collieries to their first promotion in 19 years as joint manager with Nick Handley.
Along the way he scored tons of goals, upset a few rival fans with some theatrical falls in the penalty area and enjoyed a hostile relationship with former Goole AFC and Harrogate Railway manager Nigel Danby before it turned to true love.
Bray and Handley (whose interview will be published this week) have been interviewed by Non League Yorkshire.
Handley’s interview focuses on Pontefract’s 2015 promotion so instead of treading on toes, we spoke to Bray about his Non League career.
Bray left his football boots and tactics board behind for good five years ago, but he looks back on his NL career with fond memories.
This is his Non League journey:
Starting out at Ronnie Glavin’s FA Cup heroes
“I was 16 or 17 when I joined Emley. I had been playing in the academy at Barnsley. It was great experience at Emley and I started being in and around the squad for two years around the time of the West Ham game. I wasn’t in the squad for that game, but in the season after I was in the squad for the FA Cup games with Rotherham (in 1998).
“It was the first men’s football dressing room I had been in so that’s when I got used to some of the banter, the fining systems and the pranks. It stood me in good stead. Willy didn’t set himself on fire when I was with him, but one of my first memories of him was when he screamed out in pain as there was a bottle of Woodpecker in his football boot. I was thinking what is all this guy all about? I was remember being there for the story Willy told about his bust-up with Ronnie Glavin after the Rotherham game. When they had that barney and Ronnie basically sacked him on the spot, it was the first sacking I had seen – the first of many.
“Ronnie was great for me because I was young and learning my trade. He had his legendary status at Barnsley so it was great to work under him. He is probably up there with the top two or three managers I worked under. He had a great knowledge of the game, but the main thing that stood out for me was his attention to detail, especially on set-pieces. Emley won games around those small details on set-pieces. Ronnie did specific training sessions and there would be some Saturdays where he would call us in few hours before kick off and we’d go over the road to the park and work on set-pieces.”
Signing for Garforth in 1999
“I moved to Garforth to get more game-time. It was a too big step-up for me to jump straight from academy football at Barnsley to playing for Emley’s first team every week. I was fortunate at Garforth because I was able to play upfront with Simeon Bambrook. I learnt a hell of a lot from him because he well-established and well known. He was fantastic to play alongside. He could strike a ball better than most strikers in Non League. He could turn and score from 30 yards. I actually scored lots of goals from tap-ins after ‘keepers had been unable to hold onto his shots. He was also a monster because his physical fitness was unbelievable. He was an athletic because he had strength, speed and power. He was unplayable at times.
“We won two cups (The NCEL League Cup and West Riding County Cup and I finished top goal-scorer so it was a good year as it was my first taste of silverware and individual awards.
“Dave Parker was the manager and he was a good guy and a really good manager. But I remember us were losing somewhere and he threw the tray of teacups against the wall. Every single one ended up smashed and everyone was drenched in tea. When he got angry he went really high-pitched and we were always on the verge of laughing and were that day. I actually think a few players played their last game for Garforth as Dave got shut of them.
“It was during my time with Garforth that I had a brief encounter with Nigel Danby as there were a time when he played in defence at Garforth and I played upfront before he moved on. He left a matter of weeks after I joined from Emley. It was where our battles/friendship started. We had five or six years of nothing, but hostility, abuse and hatred towards each other until he signed me at Goole.
“I used to call him every name under the sun and he used to charge about like a rutting stag tying to kick me seven bells out of me. This was a bit later, but I remember him once try to kick me and he completely missed me and injured my Sheffield strike-partner. You could see in his face that he was devastated that he hadn’t kicked me. We had some real ding-dongs and even when we saw each other down the tunnel we’d start. He’d tell me that he was going to kill me and I’d tell him that he wasn’t quick enough to catch me.”
Life at Ossett Albion (2000/01) under Eric Gilchrist
“We won promotion out of the NCEL Premier Division and we had a good dressing room with people like Mick Carter who is now the owner of Wakefield Trinity Rugby League, Steven Downes who went to York. Norbs was around for a bit too.
“Eric was very methodical and structured. There was banter in his dressing rooms, but it was very serious. Training was very serious, but he got results. He knew about every people we played against. He’d be able to tell you the team you were playing against and all their strengths and weaknesses. It paid dividends as more times than not we exploited weaknesses and caused teams problems. He used to let us know what games he had been to and he used to go and watch random games like Football League reserves games just in case they were any players who could end up playing against in a few weeks’ time. I’ve never known dedication like it. Given the opportunity he’d be out seven days a week scouting.
“One of my stories of Eric is that he picked up an ankle injury in training. I had a similar ankle injury so he lent me this wobble board which is designed to strengthen your ankle. He said to me ‘just be careful where you do it because I did it in the hallway of my house’. It turns out that he had lost balance and he completely wiped out a cupboard containing plants and crockery, causing a bit of damage as some glasses got smashed.”
Going local with football close to home with Worsbrough Bridge (2001)
“I was at Uni and a load of my mates had started playing for Worsbrough and they persuaded me to go down and have a season with them. I loved it. It was like a gang of mates playing and there was no stress or hassle. There were no expectations, although we did really well. We finished third (in the NCEL Division One table) and we didn’t lose many. I still see a lot of the lads now.
“Mark Grundy was the manager. Shane Kelsey was around as he was coming through at the time. Craig Robinson was there. Andy Brooke in the net. Matt Higginbottom was there.”
Goals, goals, goals and more goals with the world’s oldest club Sheffield, plus seven rounds with Neil Warnock
“Dave McCarthy who is now one of the directors at Sheffield United took me to Sheff Club in 2002. I signed a contract there and I had two very good seasons and I scored over 60 goals over two seasons. There were some good lads and it was mix of Barnsley and Sheffield lads. Tom Jones was the centre-half. Ryan O’Carroll, Asa Ingle, Lee Vernon were there too.
“Every pre-season we’d either play Sheffield United or Sheffield Wednesday. There was once a bust-up in the tunnel with Neil Warnock once and it was a full 22-man brawl. We were always given the Scarborough warning before those games because the club needed the money from the gate and bar and they needed the two clubs to come back. So basically we couldn’t make any daft tackles. A third of the team were Wednesday die-hard, another third Barnsley die-hards and the other third were Sheff United die-hards so there was always going to be some kicking going on. Neil Warnock took exception once and he ran down the tunnel to have a go as we were coming off at half-time. Sheff United had just come back from the Algarve so he had his sunglasses and summer outfit on and as the fighting was going on in the tunnel there was this shout of ‘f’ off Warnock, you’re not on the Algarve now’. His sunglasses were half knocked off his face.
“A few weeks later we played Sheffield Wednesday and they brought every first teamer down and the gate were fantastic. There were over 1500 there and a lot were climbing over the fence. The pub next door ran out of ale by half-time.”
NPL Football with Stocksbridge Park Steels
“Out of all of the seasons I had my time with Stocksbridge is the only one I look back on and think ‘that was a poor season’. I dislocated my ankle in a pre-season friendly against Doncaster Rovers in the warm-up. I must have had three or four further separate ankle problems all related to the one in pre-season. I only scored a few goals and I didn’t perform anywhere near where I’d have liked to. I never got into any form.”
Bray’s dad Geoff was a familiar face on the Non League circuit
“For a lot of years when I didn’t drive he was my taxi driver to games. I think he gave lifts to a few other lads as well. He certainly took Willy home a few times. When there was any trouble in a ground the first thing I would do is look to see where my dad was? More often than not he was next to it or directly involved. He loved getting involved with the banter and loved being around Non League football. When he wasn’t watching me, he’d be watching a Non League game somewhere.
“He was well known around the scene. There was a lot of times where he’d ring me up and say ‘I’ve been to watch x game and the manager has come over and shook my hand in the bar and asked me to find out if you will sign for him’? I’d go ‘oh you’re going to have to stop talking to these people dad, stop making friends with these coaches’. A week later he’d ring and say ‘this manager has text me again, what shall I say’? I was having to dodge all these managers. He’d then say ‘I am going to x game on Saturday and their manager knows me so he’s bound to have a word, what shall I say to stop him pestering me’. A lot of the time he told managers that he didn’t have any influence and to be fair he never told me where to sign or where not to sign. He actually had a season ticket at Barnsley for a lot of years, but more often than not he’d sacrifice that to go watch Non League football.”
Moving back to Sheffield before being invited to an out of the blue late night rendezvous with new Goole bosses Nigel Danby and Mick Norbury
“From Stocksbridge I went back to Sheffield and won another cup with them and in terms of trophies, that was probably my best place as I won a couple of top goal-scorer and a couple of player of the years over my two spells. I then had a short stint at Shirebrook Town (in 2006/07), but I hit the ground running because I was scoring for fun.
“Mick Norbury was another one I’d some ding-dongs with so when I got the call from him and Nige at Goole you’ll understand why I was a bit surprised. Nige had taken over as manager with Norbs as his assistant, but you have to remember these two were the hardest men in Non League football and we hadn’t exactly seen eye to eye in the past. One day they asked me to come to Woolley Edge Services for a chat. This was on a dark Friday night and I remember saying to my dad that I was either going to sign for Goole or get killed. I didn’t know what to make of it because I never been around them without having a real ding-dong. I went to Woolley Services expecting to see them hiding in the bushes ready to jump out and pounce on me. As it turned out, it was a great move. I scored on my debut for Goole, but I got sent off later on and I got a bit of stick in the local paper with the headline being ‘From Hero to Zero’. But after the game the chairman and Nige said I had played well and myself and Nige have been great mates since that first game at Goole.”
Magical times with Goole
“As a player it was the best dressing room I had ever been in plus the best management banter and best set of lads. There was some real fight in that team. It was nasty at times, but there was real quality as well. We had that kind of gang culture. There was Craig Robinson, James McDaid, me and Andy Parton upfront, Chris Tate, Brad Hill in the middle of the park. It was a bit out of order, but we used to bang on the opposition’s dressing room door if we won and that used to cause fighting. But you can probably gather that we had a great mentality. No-one fancied playing us.
“You actually saw Nigel and Norbs go more barmy on the touchline with referees and anyone from the opposition than you did in the dressing room. We once played around Christmas after Mad Friday and a few of the lads were clearly suffering from the work’s party the night before and we were losing 4-0 to Colwyn Bay at half-time. Danby ripped into us which was very rare. When he went to sit back on the table, the back legs of the table went and the full tray of teas went up in the air. He landed on the floor, teacups were smashed, tea was all over the place. Th noise was horrendous and no-one dare laugh because he might have killed us. Nige just burst out laughing and everyone was in hysterics and the team-talk was abandoned.
“Norbs got banned for six years that season. It later got reduced to a six-month ban as he appealed and I think it was Gordon Taylor, the PFA who spoke up for Norbs. I remember we played somewhere once and Danby got sent off. So we came into the dressing room at half-time and Norbs came in last. Danby says to him ‘right Norbs, I need you to look after the team now, don’t get sent off. I’m going to have stay in the dressing room’. Norbs went ‘too late I’ve already got hold of the referee and I’ve been sent off’.
“I finished top-scorer in my first season and we won the West Riding County Cup in 2007 after beating Guiseley so it was a good year for myself and the team.”
The 2007 West Riding County Cup Final nearly did not go ahead as Bray and the rest of the Goole squad did not have a match ticket
“The final was a good night and I scored twice as we won 3-1. Mind you we were lucky to get in the ground because the West Riding officials wouldn’t let us in for half-an-hour as none of the squad had a ticket! I was one of the first ones off the bus and I walked to the gate with my kitbag and the steward went ‘tickets’. I said ‘I’m playing’. The steward replied ‘you still a ticket’. So when I said ‘I haven’t got one’, he said ‘well you can’t come in’. There were 15 of us so I pointed to them and said they didn’t have a ticket either and the steward was adamant, ‘they can’t come in either’. I told him he didn’t have a cup final if that was the case. He just went ‘no ticket, you can’t come in’. Des O’Hearne, the chairman, had been sent the tickets and he had given them to the supporters. We had to wait for him to arrive and agree to pay for our ‘tickets’ before we were allowed in.”
Moving around the circuit
“After a couple of great years with Goole, I went to Retford when they had been promoted under Peter Duffield. I stayed until Christmas time before going back to Ossett Albion. The three or four months I had with Retford were good as we were flying at the top of the league. Retford wasn’t on my doorstep so I started struggling with the travelling and getting to training. I was missing training and because I couldn’t commit as much as I would have liked I had fallen out of favour with the manager. I needed to play local and Ossett was perfect as it was 15 minutes from home. I finished that season with Ossett and started the next one (2009/10) with them.
“I moved onto Selby in October 2009 when Bob Lyon was the manager. He was really good with us and his lad Steve was playing. Brent Leister was there as well. In the summer of 2010, Nigel Danby got the Harrogate Railway job. I had a short stint there, but the ankle injury I had earlier in my career started coming back. I didn’t fall out with Nigel, but I had a stint with Emley before I bumped into Joe Thornton who asked if I would like to go to Pontefract. He had a word with Simon Houghton and that’s why I went there.”
Assistant manager to Brendan Ormsby at Pontefract Collieries
“Simon left not long after I signed and when Brendan was appointed, he asked me and Nick Handley to be his assistants. Although Brendan knew the pro game inside out, he didn’t know the Non League scene. Me and Nick started bringing in lads we knew from NPL level and we slowly started bringing them in. Brendan was really good to work with and when I was learning the managerial ropes he used to ring me up and talk about squads, team-talks and who would be doing what between us. He did a lot to support me learning the ropes.”
Turning down the manager jobs at Shaw Lane Aquaforce and Goole
“I got offered the Shaw Lane job a while before Simon Houghton got it. Doug O’Connor knocked on my door on a random Sunday morning and asked me to be the manager of Shaw Lane in the County Senior League. I’d not seen Doug for maybe 20 years so when he knocked on the door, I thought he must be lost and be wanting directions. I didn’t even know he had anything to do with Shaw Lane so it was a little bizarre until he came in and explained about Shaw Lane’s ambition to move up the leagues.
“Shaw Lane’s intent was clear and it was obvious they had a huge budget and resources, but I enjoyed it at Pontefract and I didn’t want to drop down. It also sounded too good to be true. I spoke to Brendan, the chairman Guy Nottingham and Trevor Waddington and decided to stay. I don’t regret not taking the Shaw Lane because I loved it at Ponte.
“The biggest decision was a few months later when I went to Goole with Pontefract for a game. Des pulled me after the game and said ‘I want you to be our next manager’. I loved it at Goole when I played there so when he asked if I would be interested I said yes. A week later he rang up to say he’d sacked his manager so I went over for a chat. After that I went away to think about it and at our second meeting I gave him a list of players to sign from other clubs. Players I thought would do a job for them. He thought I was accepting the job, but I didn’t and I gave him the list as a goodwill gesture. They did sign a few of those players who were on the list. The reason I didn’t take the job was because Des told me who had to be my assistant. That was the deal-breaker for me.”
Appointed as joint manager of Pontefract Collieries with Nick Handley in December 2012
“It was on my birthday on a Saturday morning when Guy rang to say he had let Brendan go and would me and Nick run it? I had known Nick since College and although we are opposites in terms of personalities and the way we go about things, the amount of people we collectively knew made us be successful. It was a lot easier for us to get players because when we were assistants to Brendan when you ring players and say ‘I’m the assistant manager, will you come and play’, you don’t have the clout a manager has. The players I kind of rang first were Craig Parry, the best goalkeeper I had ever come across at NPL level, and Nigel Danby. They both signed straightaway and they were fantastic for us. It was strange getting Nige to play for us as he had been my manager at Goole so the roles were reversed.
“Once you get big characters like Nige and Paz, you ring other players and say ‘I’ve got this player and that player’. I got Michael Staley who I had played with at Retford and it became a snowball effect. Chris Kamara and others soon came.
“It took time for us to find our feet, but we had some great times and we won promotion out of NCEL Division One in our second full season. One of the things Danby always said to me was if you have a group of lads who will fight for each other that it is worth ten points a season before you have even started. We had that fight and we had a real mix of qualities.”
Watching the Colls in disguise after a red card
“This was at Bottesford, a few weeks before we got promoted. We were losing 1-0 and everything was going against us. I lost the plot and the referee gave me a warning. Nick was telling me to calm down. Anyway I got sent off. Nige Danby and Luke Danville were a brilliant centre-half pairing and they could win anything. I think we pushed Danville further up the pitch to try and get a goal because it was an important game. I thought one of those two would make the difference.
“I was in the dressing room and I could hear the game being played and there was no way I could sit in there for the next 20 minutes. I put on a beanie hat, a scarf and a big coat. I was so wrapped up that the only thing you could see were my eyeballs. I came out of the fire exit and walked round the side of the pitch with my head down and went and stood with all the home fans in the far terracing. This corner came in and Danville jumped up and headed it in. It was something like the 88th minute and I jumped up going crazy. My hat fell off so I got spotted. I ran back into the changing rooms and all the lads came in saying ‘we scored’. I was like ‘I know, I saw it because I was in the stand’.”
Leaving Pontefract in September 2015
“I was really struggling towards the end of Brendan’s tenure and when I was joint manager because I was travelling from London on Tuesday to either training or match-days and then travelling back down to London on a Wednesday morning. On some Tuesdays I wasn’t telling my missus I was coming back up north because she would go mental if she knew I was coming back just to go to the football at Pontefract. I was either going home after and saying I had just got back from London without mentioning football or I literally drove to where I was working the next day. More often than not I was travelling by train. For some midweek games I used to get to the ground for 7.20pm.
“It initially work, but when the kids started playing football on either a Saturday or Sunday it was even more difficult for me. I was also helping out with the coaching for my lad’s U7s team when I could during the week. Something had to give. As soon as we got promoted I knew I would be finishing, but I didn’t want the lads to leave. Once as the season started I was missing games and training and I rang Trevor to say I couldn’t keep doing it. Trevor and the lads were great about it.”
Banter and the infamous Pontefract Prank Squad
“The banter at most of the clubs I have been at has been great. As I’ve been at several clubs with Robbo (Craig Robinson), I can tell this tale without giving too much away. On one particular away game we noticed the assistant manager was taking his boots into the shower after the game to clean them so Robbo and I completely in sync decided to get out of the shower just as he finished cleaning his boots and decided to fill his boots using our p*ss whilst he was getting showered. Once his boots were over-flowing, we quickly scurried into the changing rooms got dressed and about five mins later we heard screams of “which dirty b***** has filled my boots with p*ss’? As we were first dressed and furthest away from the showers at this point we were the least likely suspects. Robbo walked past and said ‘that’s bang out of order, no respect for management’ smirked and followed me out to the bar. He never did get to the bottom of who it was and he always remembered to keep an eye on his boots when in the shower!
“The banter was bonkers when I was joint manager of Pontefract and that was part of our success. When we signed players we signed them more on what they were going to be like in the dressing room.
“Our favourite prank was pranking other managers who were in jobs. We used to ring someone up at 1.45pm on a Saturday pretending to be a chairman from another club. We had lots of numbers between us so we’d decide between us who we would ring. So someone would ring and say ‘I’m chairman of x club, I want you to be our next manager’. You’d hear them scramble out of their dressing room and at the end of a five minute conversation we’d all burst out laughing and they’d realise it was a prank. At least two or three accepted a job or were about to ‘email their CVs’! We got people hook, line and sinker each time. If you got pranked around that time, it will have been us.
“I was aware I was prime target and I got the odd phone call from ‘reporters’ who were actually current or ex-players trying to get one over on me. In fairness I did get caught out once by Chris Kamara who pretended to be a reporter from the Barnsley Chronicle. That was the only time I got caught out. Then I got this email from a random fella with a strange Greek name titled ‘I want to sign for Pontefract – Greek Professional Player’. Immediately I knew it was a wind up, but I looked at the CV and it said: ‘Position – Striker, Strength – Speed, Weakness – Finishing, sometimes I need a couple of chances to score’. I thought, ‘he’s telling me he’s a forward who cannot finish, this has got to be a wind up’. So I brought it up with the lads in the dressing room and everyone laughed so we left it at that, wind up over. It wasn’t until about three years later that this fella came across my path on Linkedin and sure enough he had played in the Greek Premier League and scored 100+ professional goals. He had moved to Wakefield and was looking for a club and I wrongly assumed it was a wind up and binned his CV without replying!”
“I won’t get back into it. But I look back and think about the friends I have made, the happy memories and brilliant stories. Other than playing, I think the only thing I miss is the dressing room banter at 2pm.”
Duncan Bray was interviewed by James Grayson