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Conference champions 10 years on | Andre Gray

13 May 2024

Club News

Conference champions 10 years on | Andre Gray

13 May 2024

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Ten years ago, one man’s goals helped the Hatters climb back into the Football League. Striker Andre Gray looks back on that season, how he nearly didn’t sign for us plus his time away from Kenilworth Road.

Non-league to Premier League in the space of a decade?

Yeah, that’s us. We’re proud of our story since 1885 but the past ten years have been special. 

This season we’re celebrating the first of our four promotions with the first – and probably most important – one: the 2013/14 season when, ten years ago, a team led by a lovable London boy got back to the Football League. 

In this series we talk to those heroes who made it all happen.

Watch past episodes:

Alex Lawless | Paul Benson | Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu | Scott Griffiths |
Jake Howells | Matt Robinson | Mark Tyler | Luke Guttridge | Jonathan Smith 
Ronnie Henry | John Still

Andre Gray celebrating one of his goals with Jake Howells.

The sun is peering through the curtains behind Andre Gray as the Zoom call begins while in Luton the wind is howling and the skies are grey.

“Saudi is a beautiful place to live and life is good,” smiles the striker, who moved to the Saudi Arabian capital at the start of this season to join Al-Riyadh.

“I felt my time in England had come to an end and I wanted to try something a bit different. There was a lot of excitement with all the players coming out here so I felt ‘why not be a part of it?’”

Time flies when you’re having fun. Ten years on since winning the Conference golden boot for his 30 goals in our title-winning campaign, Gray has gone onto play in the Premier League and win caps for Jamaica.

“It’s crazy that it’s been ten years,” he says. “It’s a season that will always stay with me. It was my first proper footballing achievement. I still have my shirt framed up in the house. Looking back, it’s probably one of the biggest moments in my career.”

As sliding doors moments go, Gray’s move to Kenilworth Road in the spring of 2012 is certainly up there.

Playing part-time for Hinckley, the Hatters drew the Leicestershire side in the FA Trophy and Gray impressed in both games, coming close to scoring in the replay at Kenilworth Road that the Town would run out 3-0 winners.

“I might have been going to Tamworth and the Luton tie came around,” admits the striker, now 32. “I remember we played away in the second game and I had a few chances. The next day I just got a phone call and that was it, it was pretty crazy how fast it all happened.”

Gray arrived in Bedfordshire at a turbulent time that soon saw Gary Brabin depart and Paul Buckle take over with the Town needing a run of results to even make the play-offs.

But the striker hit the ground running, and an inspired run of goalscoring form – that included a debut goal against Grimsby – took the Town all the way to Wembley.

“I’ll never forget my first game – I didn’t think I’d go straight into the team. I played awful but managed to score,” remembers Gray.

“But in those games at the end of the season I was just in a trance, not over-thinking things, I was living the dream, playing in front of big crowds for the first time in my career.

“We got to Wembley, which was great, but obviously we were devastated that we didn’t get promoted. Yet I was still in my bubble, I was thinking just how far had I come in the space to three months.”

Gray’s first full season saw him play a major role in helping the Hatters reach the fifth round of the FA Cup before going on to finish the campaign as top scorer with 20 goals as the Hatters missed out on the play-offs.

“We made history in the cup but the ultimate goal of getting promoted didn’t go as planned,” he says.

John Still’s arrival at Kenilworth Road at the end of the 2012/13 campaign signalled a new era – but Gray was growing frustrated.

“I think for one game I was left out of the squad entirely and I remember not understanding why at the time,” admits the frontman. “Obviously John wanted to see different players and in pre-season he installed his ways.

“He was an experienced manager and I was young, but it was difficult for me. However, as the season went on I began to understand his methods and why. I think he knew he could get more out of me and I think he realised he could do that when I was a bit angry.

“I remember scoring against Woking and the next game at Hereford I was dropped and I was fuming. I was so angry about it. I couldn’t get my head around it. But after that I played for the rest of the season and the lessons I learned that year that have stood me in good stead for the rest of my career.”

While the striker paid tribute to Still’s ability to manage him and the squad, Gray also believes the manager’s acquisition of one player in particular helped the Town to promotion that season.

“I think without Paul Benson I don’t score 30 goals,” he admits. “I was still very raw and then I was never a traditional number 9 at that age. My hold-up play was not the best and given it was non-league and we were playing long balls, I was best used out wide as an inverted striker.

“With Benno able to win those flick-ons, I was able to play behind on the shoulder of the defenders. He helped me a lot and we played to my strengths – it was massive.”

Gray struck a hat-trick on his final appearance at Kenilworth Road against Forest Green to secure the golden boot – “I played with a torn hamstring that day and there’s no way I’d do that now but I got away with it” – and come the end of the season he was on his way out as Brentford came calling.

“However, you know what? I didn’t know anything about it,” admits Gray. “My whole mindset was ‘I’ve got back to League Two, let’s continue where I left off’. In my mind I was genuinely staying.

“Brentford came out of nowhere and I didn’t even know it was 100 per cent serious or not. When I found out, it was just an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.

“I came down and spoke to Gary Sweet and we spoke man to man. It was a really good conversation. I knew Luton obviously wanted to keep me. I said ‘It’s not like I’m not happy here and I’d love to stay’.

“But playing in the Championship was something I couldn’t say no to but we shook hands and left on amazing terms. I think everyone understood my reasoning to go and explore that opportunity.”

Eighteen goals in his debut season at Griffin Park led to a move to Burnley the following season where 23 goals helped the Clarets to promotion. Five years after playing for Hinckley he was a Premier League player in 2016.

“That was like going back to school again,” Gray says. “I was nervous. I’d jumped three levels and never trained at that level before and the fitness levels were off the charts. To start with I struggled but I worked hard and after scoring my first goal I never looked back.”

But while Gray’s career was on an upward trajectory, the fortunes of his former club were too, as the Town continued to climb the pyramid, reaching the Championship in 2019.

“It was inevitable,” he says. “I think the biggest hurdle was always to get out of the Conference and for some reason that seemed to be the hardest thing to do. With the play-offs and only one automatic promotion place, anything could happen.

“I think the whole club knew how far it could go from there, so it was never a surprise to me that they would get to the Championship.

“But the way in which they got to the Premier League and how quickly they did it was unbelievable.”

As the Town rose through the divisions, it eventually led to the striker playing against the Hatters in the Championship, including one game for Watford in which he thought he’d scored a last-minute equaliser in the derby at Kenilworth Road in 2021 – only for it to be chalked off for offside.

“I remember getting a lot of stick for celebrating but honestly I didn’t know Luton and Watford were rivals!” he says in his defence.

“Honestly, my reaction to that was more to the manager of Watford at the time. I came on and didn’t start so thought I should be playing so that’s why I reacted in the way that I did.

“And in any case, I scored for QPR and there wasn’t a celebration!

“I loved my time with Luton and it’s something I’ll never forget.”

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