Villa's Greatest Heroes: Andy Gray

It seems strange that a whole generation of Liverpool fans have grown up knowing Alan Hansen as a television pundit rather than as the man who marshalled their defence for over a decade.

Likewise, any Englishman below their mid-twenties think of crisp adverts, bad puns and jokes about big ears when they think of Gary Lineker, a man who plundered 48 goals for his country.

And there are people, even born and bred Aston Villa fans, who only know Andy Gray as the instantly recognisable face - and voice - of Sky Sports.

There have been times in that role when the Holte End faithful have complained Gray does not show enough loyalty to his former club. Despite referring to Villa in private conversation as "we," Gray has, unlike his peers, never pandered to his former employers in analysis.

But then, Gray has never been afraid to go against the grain. Many of the men who played under Ron Saunders look back, like the fans, at a golden age, and have elevated the former manager - quite understandably - to the status of a demigod. Gray's relationship with Saunders was somewhat more difficult, and was epitomised by one night in 1977.

The Professional Footballers' Association were holding their annual awards dinner. Gray, who finished the season with 25 goals, knew that he had made history. Not only would he be named the PFA Young Player of the Year, he was also set to receive the most prestigious individual honour in the English game - the PFA Players' Player of the Year award.

No man had ever won the two awards in the same season; no man would repeat the feat for 20 years. It should have been one of the happiest nights of his life. Instead, it was one of the most painful.

As champagne corks popped and glasses were raised in his name in London, Gray sat in his front room. Saunders had refused him permission to travel to the ceremony, insisting the journey might aggravate the injury Gray was carrying.

Andy Gray signing for Aston Villa

Perhaps Saunders was right. Gray certainly recovered well enough from the injury, in the short term at least; he notched 29 goals the following season. But the relationship between the two men was never friendly, and it came as no surprise to those who observed it close hand when Gray was sold to Wolverhampton Wanderers for a record British transfer fee of £1.5million in September 1979.

It wasn't the last painful exit of Gray's Villa career. Eight years later he was sitting dumbfounded in the manager's office, across the table from Graham Taylor, who was telling him that his Villa career was at an end - again. Taylor, new in the job, felt that Gray's popularity, and the respect he commanded amongst the younger players, might undermine his own position.

Gray left, but not without a parting shot. "I'll be back," he told Taylor. "And I'll be sitting in that chair."

"I was right, too," he remembered years later. "Even if it was only as Ron Atkinson's assistant."

He spent just a year in the role, but can look back fondly as he and Atkinson breathed life into a club struggling from the aftermath of Taylor's departure for the England job and the unsuccessful tenure of Josef Venglos. Before their first training session, Atkinson pulled Gray to one side and told him the plan: they would take a look at the players over the coming weeks, make no rushed decisions and gradually add to the squad.

After that first training session, Atkinson pulled Gray to the side again and told him the new plan: they would start looking for players that afternoon.

There were difficult times, of course, be they midnight searches for Paul McGrath in German bars or run-ins with Doug Ellis, unhappy with the amount of work Gray was doing for the fledgling Sky company (at the time, Gray was appearing on a discussion show on Sunday nights. As Sky had no rights to live football and hours of airtime to fill, the show was broadcast several times throughout the week, leading to Ellis' displeasure; the septuagenarian wasn't entirely au fait with the idea of repeats).

But Gray's relationship with Ellis was always good. He was happy to act as a buffer between the chairman and his manager, just as he was between the manager and the players. And like the best assistant managers, he wasn't afraid to stand up to the man in the hotseat, or his favourite stars.

Atkinson loved flair players; Gray tried to get them to play. Later he remembered telling Dalian Atkinson that he could play for England if he would just put the work in - and if he didn't he could find himself dropped. "I'm not bothered," the striker shrugged. "If I'm dropped I'll get a transfer and play somewhere else."

It was an attitude completely alien to Gray, brought through - as so many players were - by Jim McLean at Tannadice. If you didn't work hard at Dundee United, you were out the door. Gray's attitude was so shaped by this that, 20 years later, he talked Big Ron out of signing Matthew Le Tissier.

It didn't take the young Gray long to impress at Tannadice. There was, as so often in Gray's career, heartbreak - his side lost the 1974 Scottish FA Cup Final 3-0 to Celtic. But Gray's performances, and 46 goals in 62 games, had attracted the attention of a number of clubs, including his boyhood team Rangers. McClean, though, knew how damaging it would be to sell the youngster to a Scottish rival, and held out for an approach from a foreign club. It came from Aston Villa in October 1975.

Some might disagree with me, but if forced to choose one game of Andy Gray's Aston Villa career as a highlight, I can't see how it could be any other than the 5-1 win over Liverpool on December 15, 1976. It was the reigning champions' worst defeat in well over a decade. They would go on to win the European Cup and retain their league title. But that night, with two goals each from Gray and John Deehan and one from Brian Little, that meant nothing. The Liverpool fans applauded Gray off the pitch.

His record-breaking move to Wolves had, as always, its ups and downs. He marked his first season by scoring the winning goal in the 1980 League Cup final against the European Champions Nottingham Forest, but also suffered the pain of relegation at Molineux. He stayed to help fire Wolves back into the top-flight, and managed it at the first attempt. But as the financial plight of Wolves became ever more obvious, he was snapped up by Everton for a bargain £200,000.

So began, in terms of trophies, the most glorious spell of Gray's career. Older and suffering from injuries, he never replicated the scoring feats of his youth, but in two years at Goodison Park he won the League Championship and the European Cup Winners' Cup, as well as scoring the winning goal at Wembley in the FA Cup final.

The arrival of Gary Lineker at Everton sent him looking for first team football, and Aston Villa signed him for a tenth of what they had received six years earlier. Gray, now in his thirties, was hardly prolific, but his influence on the younger players was commendable to all but Taylor, who sold him to one Ron Atkinson, at West Bromwich Albion.

He stayed just one season at The Hawthorns. At the end of it, Atkinson called him into his office and said, "I've had an offer for you. I don't want to lose you, but I think it's somewhere you've always wanted to play."

"Real Madrid?" replied Gray, quick as a flash. He would probably have been disappointed if it was.

Since the days he had stood on the terraces at Ibrox, Gray had dreamed of pulling on a Rangers shirt. At 33 years old, he got his chance, and helped kick-start a dramatic dominance. Rangers had won just one title in the previous ten years. Stealing a march on Celtic by snapping up some of the best players in England, many of whom were keen to move from a country banned from European competition, Graeme Souness set the club on the road to nine championships in a row and eleven in twelve years. Coincidentally, it was only the arrival of the current Aston Villa manager at Celtic Park that changed things.

By then, of course, Gray was long gone, into a short spell of non-league football with Cheltenham Town, a year as assistant manager at Villa Park and, subsequently, a highly-successful media career. He has only been tempted to leave it once, when a possibility emerged that he might have been offered the Everton job. In the end, Gray decided to stay with Sky. Whether that would have been the case if it was the Villa Park hotseat vacant will remain a mystery.