Belfast Telegraph

Gray moves a step ahead of dad to big time

Proud james in right place to win his first cap

By Stuart McKinley

It's hard to tell who is more excited about James Gray's first call-up to the Northern Ireland senior squad.

It really is a close contest between the player himself and his dad, ex-international striker Philip.

"Proudest moment off my life!" James told the world via his Twitter account after Michael O'Neill dipped into his stand-by list for the games against Uruguay and Chile on Northern Ireland's trip to South American and handed the Accrington Stanley striker and Cliftonville's Liam Boyce a seat on the plane.

Dad was only slightly more subdued when he told the Belfast Telegraph: "It's fantastic that James is in the squad and I'll be over the moon if he gets even five minutes in either of the games."

It's 22 years since Philip was in the same position, making his first appearance as a substitute against Denmark in a World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park

"I remember Billy Bingham giving me my debut and how exciting it was for me," said Philip.

"There were a few of us who came through the youth teams together, like Jim Magilton, Michael Hughes and Michael O'Neill and I was the last one to break through.

"I have spoken to James about it and I know how much this means to him, but he has his feet on the ground."

Philip scored six times in 26 appearances for Northern Ireland during a nine-year international career from 1992 to 2001.

The bar is set high for James to emulate his father, but he's already a step ahead and Philip, who is still based in Bedfordshire, not far from Luton where he had two spells as a player, has seen him develop even in the last few months.

"I think I was 22 when I made my Northern Ireland debut. James is only 21, so he is a bit ahead of me," said Philip.

"I try to get to as many of his games as I can, although it's a three and a half hour trek up the M6 for me every time.

"I watched him about 15 times last season and he did well.

"He's improving and he has been rewarded for the hard work that he has put in over the last few years.

"He'd been at Hartlepool and then went to Middlesbrough, but there was a clause that Hartlepool were due money if he signed and that didn't help him.

"I know those clauses are good for smaller clubs and if the player makes it and is sold for a lot of money it can be very beneficial, but it doesn't help the young lads who are borderline.

"If they are 50-50 the club just won't want to pay the money and the player is let go.

"I know Paul Cook, who was manager of Accrington, and after he took James on trial he rang me and said 'where have you been hiding him?' Thankfully he has done well there and scored a few goals last season."

Although it is now 13 years since 45-year-old Philip made his last international appearance, he keeps a close eye on the Northern Ireland team and he believes that Michael O'Neill is on the right track.

"I played with Michael and I think that he is doing a good job," said Gray.

"It's very difficult given the numbers that he has to pick from, but I can see what he's trying to do.

"I just hope he gets the opportunity to get the benefits of that work and I would love James to be a part of that going forward."

Whatever happens for James in South America over the next few days, there will still be one more box to tick for all the family.

And rather than being almost 7,000 miles away, Philip intends to be there.

"I haven't watched Northern Ireland at Windsor Park since I stood on the Kop as a kid," he said.

"I'd be a very proud and happy father if James is running out there one day in a green and white shirt.

"It would be a big thing for all the family if he were to play at Windsor."

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