Crystal Palace youngster Jake Gray finding his feet in a brave new world at Hartlepool United

Crystal Palace youngster Jake Gray finding his feet in a brave new world at Hartlepool United

Premier League managers are often adept at spotting a good talent when they see it, and so it turned out that when Alan Pardew suggested to Palace U21 boss Gary Issott that young midfielder Jake Gray should play through the middle.

The 19-year-old, who turns 20 on Christmas Day, has spent the best part of four years at a club previously renowned for blooding youngsters.

Aged 16, he was the next young player in line to be catapulted from the Wycombe Wanderers academy that had already produced the likes of Jordan Ibe and Matt Phillips, both of whom went on to make high profile moves to the top of the football pyramid.

Palace were among several clubs whose interest was piqued by this exciting youngster. Playing through the middle, he had impressed many at Wycombe, but then for many at the club, tragedy struck.

Gray is flourishing in his loan spell at League Two Hartlepool United (Pic: ELA)

The EPPP rules were introduced, and the Chairboys took the decision to close their academy due to the enhanced cost which they felt prohibited a strengthening of the first team. Dozens of young boys’ dreams were crushed before their eyes, some of the best moved to other academies nearby, but the others discarded with a reminder of the tough, brutal, unforgiving world of football. But this was different, they had made no mistakes of their own leading to their release, it was out of their hands.

Palace laid out the red carpet to entice a shy, unassuming Aylesbury boy to snub other offers and join the club.

It worked.

Fast forward to 2015 and Gray, who spent time on loan at Cheltenham Town last season but was beset by terrible luck which cut his spell short, scored twice on his league debut for Hartlepool in League Two in front of the Sky cameras, grabbed an assist in his second game, and crashed a wonderful volley off the bar in his third game.

One criticism you could level at Gray during his time with Palace is his lack of goals from out wide. There has to be no doubt of his technical prowess on the ball, but his failure to regularly net was holding him back. His contemporaries, one by one, were securing temporary moves away from south London, and duly impressing. Meanwhile he pondered life in the Eagles’ U21 side.

Gray was a product of Wycombe Wanderers’ academy, but was snapped up by Palace after the Chairboys closed their academy in 2012

So perhaps a little over exuberance in celebration could be forgiven when he received the ball on the edge of the area and duly struck home his first ever professional goal, via a deflection from Alan Dunne. Gray will care not one jot that it was not ‘clean’, he had opened his account and put Pools ahead against Leyton Orient.

But that was not the end of it. With 70 minutes played, he made a darting run behind the Orient backline and with his hand out to direct his team-mate’s sublime pass, he took one touch and fired a superb shot across the Orient ‘keeper. It was a finish that would not look out of place at the top level.

A man of the match performance on his league debut to follow up a promising debut in the FA Cup will have boosted Gray’s confidence no end.

That is exactly what he requires. The move to Hartlepool will have been a culture shock, away from his family, his friends, his girlfriend, out on his own up North.

Nonetheless, it is testament to this young man that he has developed his own confidence in recent months, from mumbling words to me after U21 games to holding no reservations at speaking to supporters in a video on Hartlepool’s website, and to the local press. It is confidence which will hold the key to Jake Gray’s future in football – when he has his head up high, there can be no stopping him.

Gray is already a fans favourite at Victoria Road (Pic: HUFC)

Equally though, there have been times where this midfielder, reminiscent in style of a young Frank Lampard, his runs, movement and finishing style similar to Dougie Freedman, has not been at the top of his game.

However, seven goals in eleven U21 appearances this season from the No10 position have put paid to any of those concerns.

He was given a debut in the League Cup last season against Walsall, before making a late appearance against Newcastle in the following round, and impressing in an unfamiliar right wing-back position, before going out on loan to Cheltenham.

Gray had a loan spell at Cheltenham Town to bolster his league experience (Pic: CTFC)

The sacking of Cheltenham boss Mark Yates just shy of a year ago meant that his loan – which was neither superb nor awful – was not extended after four appearances.

But, as many will attest, Gray put his head down, worked hard and has finally reaped the rewards of that effort.

The first sign of that reward came last month when Palace’s first team travelled to Watford and he was named among the substitutes, before he was then rewarded further with a spot on the bench for the home game with West Brom a week later.

Gray has an admirer in manager, Alan Pardew, and will hope to break into the first team once his loan at Hartlepool ends (Pic: CPFC)

A move to the North was another indication that some had high hopes for him, and two goals last week will have only made people sit up and pay more attention.

Now the task is to maintain the high standard, and prove any doubters wrong. Under 21 football is far too easy for the midfielder, so now is the time to work twice as hard, continue to impress, to prove that this was no fluke, and to push on like his contemporaries have.

There are two journeys here: the personal and the professional. It is no coincidence that as one improved, so did the other.

About Matt Woosnam

Matt is a freelance journalist with experience of writing about football, and Palace in particular for several years, while he has also broken exclusive stories. He takes an interest in the club on and off the pitch at all levels and enjoys covering the youth teams in great detail, attending matches at U18 and U21 level on a regular basis, but also has plenty to offer when discussing the first team.

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