James Gray insists winning promotion from the Southern Premier Division is just the start and the St Albans City joint manager believes the club have the potential to climb into the Football League.
The Saints crowned a brilliant first full campaign under Gray and Graham Golds by beating Chesham United in yesterday's play-off final. St Albans can look forward to Conference League football next season and Gray insists the club have the scope to keep progressing up the football ladder.
Gray said: “We have done the first step but this is just the start. I am 35 and Graham is a young manager. We have plenty of years left and we want to keep progressing. The club has the potential to sustain Football League status. Obviously that is a few steps away but we’re hoping to be around here for a long time.
“We have a good set-up here and this is just the culmination of hard work. We always backed ourselves since we took the jobs 18 months ago. Hopefully we can keep progressing now and try to get into the play-offs next year.”
The Saints had the toughest draw in the play-offs as they had to win 4-2 at Cambridge City last week before claiming promotion at Chesham United. Although Gray always insisted promotion was the target, he admits their success has come earlier than he realistically anticipated.
The Saints boss said: “That is the biggest achievement of my career without a shadow of a doubt because we’ve put the club back on the map. It has been the best season with our cup runs and to crown it with promotion is absolutely brilliant.
“I’ve had a few promotions before but managing is different to playing. Having over 3,000 here for the Mansfield cup tie was a big achievement but this is better and great to see all the hard work pay off. We’re chuffed to have got over the line.”
Gray added: “We went on record to say that we wanted promotion but if we’re being honest it’s probably happened a year earlier than we anticipated. We thought it might take a season for all the players to gel and that we would challenge for the title next year but it has come a year earlier than we perhaps expected.”
St Albans finished fourth in the table and were certainly not the favourites heading into the play-offs but Gray believes their squad always had the ability to rise to the occasion on the big stage.
He said: “We went into the play-offs as the underdogs, especially with the two away matches, but every single one of our players is Conference South level. I always knew we had big game players and the cup competitions proved that this season. The players have a big game mentality and this paid off in the play-offs.”
Despite playing at Chesham, the visitors had the majority of the fans in attendance and the ground even had to be shut by the police with some supporters not able to get inside. Gray admits the support for the Saints was a huge factor in helping them win promotion.
“The support that we had was frightening,” he said. “To see more than 2,000 St Albans fans backing us really spurred us on and it played a massive part in the win.
“We told the boys the kick-off was delayed 15 minutes because there were more fans trying to get into the ground and you could see what that did to them when they realised the level of support we had. The fans never stopped cheering and it was hard not to be inspired.
“It’s like a sleeping giant and we have gradually grown the club. We have attracted two to 3,000 fans in a couple of the games and we’re just hoping that we can get them all to come back next year.”
He added: “It is just a sense of relief after getting promotion which is what we set out to achieve. All the fans were on the pitch and it was a massive party. We’re going to Marbella later this month and that will be a good time to enjoy what we’ve achieved.”
The final did not start according to plan as St Albans fell behind early on but Gray claims there was never any chance of them letting the lead slip once they went 2-1 in front.
He said: “We looked a bit shaky to start with and conceded a really sloppy goal. But then John Frendo scored an unbelievable free-kick and in the second half we were just professional and could have won it more convincingly.
“At half-time I could see the hunger in their eyes and they were never going to let that slip. The last two games every single player has had that desire and they were never going to let that slip. We went out there after the break and it could have been even more convincing in the end.”
The Saints should discover later this week whether they will be competing in the Conference South or North next season.
Gray said: “We will go up and the pressure will be off us now. It will make a massive difference in terms of travelling what league we’re in but that’s out of our hands. We’re hoping that we can get into the Conference South otherwise there will be some very long away trips.”