Julian Gray only passed through Cardiff, but he still managed to make a lasting impression. Here he talks about what led to his brief stint with the club, where his career subsequently led and finding religion.
When I was reading up on your career, it occurred to me that you probably came through the Arsenal youth set-up at the same time as Jay Bothroyd, who proved to be a big player for Cardiff. Did your paths cross and did you ever play together?
Yeah, I know him really well, but we didn’t play together. Jay is younger than me, but we grew up at Arsenal together.
I was also looking at some old photos and you forget how baggy the kits were back then!
Haha. Yeah, not tight fitted!
You were an exciting signing for Cardiff because you were one of those attacking players in the Championship at the time that stood out. What was your situation at Crystal Palace at the time?
I wasn’t playing at Palace. The chairman Simon Jordan fell out with me and wasn’t happy that I wanted to leave the club. I was under 24 at the time, so I couldn’t go on a free transfer, but he had been asking crazy money for me. I spent pre-season with Charlton and they wanted to sign me. I also went to Leeds and it was the same thing because the money Palace were asking for was ridiculous.
I would have gone on a free, except that my 24th birthday was after the start of the season, so I had to wait a whole year instead. He kind of ousted me from the first-team and I was training with kids. He said some bad things about me and my family in the papers too, so the fans turned on me. The opportunity came for me to join Cardiff on loan and I was happy because I just wanted to play football.
Was it always going to be Cardiff?
There was a Cardiff scout at the time that used to be at Palace and he knew me. So he spoke to Lennie Lawrence and they approached Palace about me coming there.
Did Lennie have to sell the club to you? I guess you were desperate to leave by then
I just wanted to play football, but I knew about Cardiff and the style they were playing, so I was just happy to come.
It was an exciting time for Cardiff, having just been promoted to the second tier for the first time in many years and they had lots of exciting players like Robert Earnshaw, Danny Gabbidon and Richard Langley. How did you settle in and find working with that group of players? Did you know any of them already and have you since stayed in touch with anyone?
Gabbidon, Robbie Earnshaw, they were internationals at the time. Collins at the back, Kav in midfield, they had a good team. I knew Langers and used to play against him growing up, from say 12 onwards. District and county level. Everyone else made me feel welcome and I settled in right away. I needed to get up to speed, so started off on the bench, coming on to get my match fitness. I initially signed for one month, but it got extended to a second month and I started to do well and the team was flying.
They wanted to extend it again, but Palace said no because they weren’t doing so well at the time and Cardiff was. So they said Cardiff had to buy me or send me back. I was happy to stay, but again, they money they were asking for being ridiculous, I ended up having to go back. I got straight back in the team, then they started to do well and got promoted at the end of the season.
Like you say, you started your first few games on the bench, before breaking in to the side, cramming about eight matches in during a six-week spell. What are your memories of this time?
I had a great time. I loved the city as well and everyone made me feel welcome. I was staying at the Vale of Glamorgan hotel, which was really nice and everyone looked after me. It was a happy time for me. I was really enjoying my football and I would have been happy to stay longer, but it was taken out of my hands.
Your contract was up at the end of the season and Palace got promoted. Was there any scope for you to stay there? I suppose a move to Cardiff was out of the question, with the chance of playing in the Premier League?
Palace offered me a new deal, but my mind was made up after the way I was treated. You know what fans are like and the picture that was painted was that I didn’t want to be at the club, but that wasn’t the case. I had been there four years and wanted a new challenge, plus the contract they offered me wasn’t great, yet you’re asking loads of money for me. It didn’t really add up. I ended up signing for Birmingham because I knew the manager.
You returned to the club on trial in 2009. How did that come about and what happened?
I had been released by Fulham and I went to Cardiff to train and keep fit, with a view to them maybe signing me. Dave Jones was the manager at the time, Jay was there, Michael Chopra, Stephen McPhail. Obviously, it didn’t work out, I’m not sure why.
I always tell people about my time at Cardiff because they’re fond memories. I always keep a look out for their scores and I wanted to go back there because I felt like I had unfinished business after things were cut short.
You had an interesting career, representing a lot of different clubs and you spent a couple of years playing in Cyprus too. How did that come about?
An agent of a player I knew had taken him to Cyprus and he was from there too. He contacted me and asked if I would be interested because there was a club that really wanted me. I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not in the beginning, but within a week, he came back to me and said that the chairman of Nea Salamis Famagusta wanted me to come over, so it happened really quickly.
I went over there, had a conversation with them and they showed me around. He said that they really wanted me to come and asked what do they need to do to make it happen. I said that I needed to go back home and discuss it, but it was a new country and a new challenge, so in the end I thought ‘why not.’ The manager was also English and they had a few English players at the time. When I moved there, I moved alone and my family came back and forth.
I didn’t realise how good the league was at the time and didn’t expect it to be as competitive as it was. The first season was amazing. We finished fifth or sixth and they had only been promoted the season before, so it wasn’t expected an we beat some of the bigger teams. One of the bigger clubs at the time wanted to sign me, but the chairman didn’t want to let me go and I found out later that the manager said that if they sold me, he would probably have left!
You accepted Islam during your time as a player. How did that affect your life and career?
I’ve always believed in God. We were brought up with Christianity and went to church on special occasions. I got to a stage where I wanted to know more about religion, the creator and what was expected of us. I always prayed and was always spiritual, but I didn’t know how to worship God properly. So I started to do some research and my brother was Muslim. He gave me some books a long time ago and I just got to a point where I felt like something was missing in my life.
I had material things, but spiritually, something was missing. I needed to get closer to God and I found Islam in December 2008. I’m the kind of person that needs to make sense of things and understand it. With Islam, I found that. It explained creation, what we’re here for and everything you could think of.
The only difference for me initially was praying five times a day and fasting during Ramadan. I found that fasting was hard, but in the second half of a season, I felt stronger when people were starting to feel tired. Looking back, I think that helped me and had a positive effect.
How do you reflect on your career as a whole? Are you satisfied or do you have any regrets?
I don’t regret things. Islam has taught me what’s meant to be will be. I’m grateful because I know some people I played with didn’t have the career I had and some had better careers than me, but what I had, I’m grateful for. It was a good career and I have to be thankful for it.
Where are you currently based and what are you up to these days? Are you still involved in football at all?
I’m based back in London at the moment and I’m training the Under-16’s at the Arsenal Academy. Football is still a big part of my life and always will be. It’s nice to be able to give something back and I want them to have better careers than I had. The plan is to get my badges and work my way up. People ask if I would ever want to manage, but I’m on the beginning of my journey. If there were opportunities down the line, I would like to try it. At the moment, coaching is a learning curve and I’m enjoying it.