While the fairytale narrative of a former non-league striker excelling in the Football League has been commonly associated with Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy this season, comparisons could be drawn with one of his former team-mates: Millwall frontman, Lee Gregory.
The 27-year-old, who once partnered this 2015/16 Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year award winner during their days at Halifax Town, has been making quite a name for himself in the third tier of English football throughout the current domestic campaign.
Gregory took his tally to 25 in all competitions this season after scoring the winning goal in a 2-1 victory over play-off chasing Gillingham on the final day of the regular season. The striker’s penalty at Priestfield on Sunday helped the Lions secure a dramatic win, while condemning the hosts to League One for another season.
While the Gills missed out on the top six, for Millwall, a fourth place finish means promotion is still on the cards. A two-legged play-off tie against Bradford awaits, in which an aggregate victory would set up a dream trip to Wembley on Sunday 29th May – an experience that Gregory “would never forget”. When discussing the occasion, he said the following:
“Getting to a Wembley final will be right up there with anything I have achieved in my career so far. If we did get there, which we’re not even thinking about yet, then it would be a great achievement and one we would relish.”
Goals come naturally to a player like Gregory, who’s link-up play and ability to compete in the air make him a living nightmare for defenders to play against, and as such, he has been key to Millwall’s success this term. When asked about his knack in front of goal, he confidently stated:
“As a striker you want to score as many goals as you possibly can, no matter who you are playing against, or in what competition.”
He is well within his right to be so assured in his ability. He joined The Lions, who were in the Championship at the time, under the management of Ian Holloway in June 2014, after scoring an impressive 35 times in 39 games for Halifax the season before – a tally that took his overall record for the non-league club to 89 goals in 135 appearances.
Although he didn’t set the world on fire in his first season at The Den, netting just nine times in 41 appearances, he did finish the campaign as the club’s top scorer. The club found themselves relegated at the end of the season, but the experience the Englishman gained will prove invaluable should they achieve promotion this term.
“The whole season was a real learning curve for me,” he said. “The Championship was a big step up from the level I was playing at with Halifax so I had to adjust to that both technically and physically, which was always going to take some time.” He continued:
“I believe I did OK in difficult circumstances. Scoring the goals in the Championship gave me added belief that I could perform well at the higher levels of the Football League.”
Although The Lions ended a difficult campaign facing life in League One, it is fair to say that rarely could a relegated club have had such an air of positivity about it. That positive attitude is not just held by the management and staff, but extends to the players too, as Gregory was quick to emphasize:
“As a squad we get on really well with each other, which is so important for team spirit and togetherness. There’s a great mixture of youth and experience among us and that has helped to get us where we are now.”
With a strong playing squad and a clear harmony among the players, Millwall’s current position is therefore unlikely to come as a surprise. While Neil Harris, the man who replaced Holloway as permanent manager last summer, would have been vying for promotion through the automatic route this term, the competition in League One has been far greater than first anticipated.
After a 2014/15 campaign dominated by Bristol City, Preston and MK Dons, the third tier lacked a clear favourite heading into the current campaign. Nonetheless, several sides, including Gary Caldwell’s Wigan Athletic and Burton Albion, now under the stewardship of Nigel Clough, have rallied to assume a commanding position at the summit of the table.
Indeed, the play-offs seemed a long way off for Millwall at the end of August, when they’d taken just four points from the first 15 available. However, steady progress under Harris saw the Lions climb the table and, despite a run of five defeats in seven from the end of November, a strong second half to the season saw them fall just four points short of automatic promotion.
When discussing the quality on show in League One, Gregory was quick to highlight Champions Wigan, while he also reserved praise for fellow play-off contenders Walsall. Led by caretaker manager Jon Witney, the latter could be the final obstacle between Millwall and a return to the Championship at the first time of asking.
“The quality is really high in the division and I’ve been impressed with all sorts of teams and players”, Gregory said. “Naturally you look at Wigan for what they have achieved – when they came to The Den they defended really well with 10 men to get a 0-0 draw.
He continued, “Walsall were also very good when they beat us at home, but then we went to their ground and won 3-0, so it shows that we have been one of the best sides too.”
Gregory joins a host of former non-league players who are now enjoying successful stints in the upper tiers of English football, but he believes his current career trajectory has been helped by the fact he is a goal scoring centre-forward. Undoubtedly, there remain plenty of unearthed talents plumbing the depths of the lower tiers, but the 27-year-old suggests they are not being ignored.
“A lot of clubs are scouting in non-league and have done so for many years, so it is great when you see bigger clubs taking the plunge to sign players and give them an opportunity. I was lucky because I’m a striker and it’s not hard to look up which forwards are scoring goals, no matter the level. It’s more difficult for midfielders, defenders or goalkeepers to get noticed because their stats stand out less, but they are still being looked at and long may it continue.”
Naturally, a higher level of football brings comes with a higher standard of facilities, as well as increased expectations from both supporters, management and the media.
“The differences are huge and you notice them straight away. The training facilities are obviously much, much better, as is the general professionalism around the place, in terms of nutrition, sports science and with other areas. The media attention is obviously different, but you get used to everything really quickly because it becomes part of your day-to-day routine.”
Recent Premier League winner, Jamie Vardy, is a player for whom media attention has become part and parcel of daily life. The Leicester City striker, who has become a somewhat unlikely national hero throughout the past 12 months, once formed half of a lethal Vardy-Gregory Halifax Town partnership.
Indeed, the duo fired the West Yorkshire outfit to the Northern Premier League division title in 2010/11. Vardy finished the campaign as the club’s top goal scorer, while Gregory finished third on the list. At the end of the season, Vardy had done enough to attract the interest of Fleetwood Town of the Conference National, while Gregory remained with Halifax, until June 2014.
In the following three seasons, the Sheffield-born frontman established himself as a prolific goal-scorer at The Shay Stadium. He holds numerous records at the club, including the most league goals in a season, most goals scored in a single game by a player, and the most goals in the club’s history – marking a rather successful three and a half year spell at the club.
Reflecting on his time playing alongside Vardy, Gregory suggests that The Foxes striker always look capable of being a hero.
“It doesn’t surprise me because Jamie [Vardy] stood out as an outstanding player when I was with him at Halifax. He had ability where he could be quiet for 80 minutes, and then out of nowhere he would score a couple of goals to win you a game.”
Vardy has certainly shown a knack for winning games during his time in the top flight. With 24 goals to his name, just one behind international team-mate Harry Kane heading into the final game of the season, he stands in good stead to battle for the highly-coveted Premier League Golden Boot award.
Gregory continued in his praise of the England international, revealing the secret to the excellent progress he has made during his time at the King Power Stadium. As you may have imagined, it took more than just lightening pace and an eye for goal for Vardy to reach the position he finds himself in today.
“His progress has been unbelievable, but that is down to his work ethic and determination to succeed, and I’ve got nothing but praise for him for what he has achieved.”
Having seen his former team-mate lift the top flight trophy, it would be natural to assume that Gregory holds aspirations to achieve similar success, but level-headed as ever, the Millwall front-man refuses to look too far into the future:
“As for me, I’m not one to look too far forward. I’m just focused on the here and now, which is trying to get Millwall into the play-off final.”
With the play-offs at the forefront of Gregory’s mind, the Englishman will be fully focused on Millwall’s visit to Valley Parade to take on Bradford on Sunday.
The Lions come into this game in fine form, having won five of their previous six games, while they have scored the most goals of all the sides left in the play-offs. Nonetheless, the 27-year-old recognises that, for all teams involved, previous form is now a mere formality.
“There’s a long way to go and a lot of football to be played. Rather than being like regular league games, the play-offs are more of a cup run and we will have to be right on our game in every fixture”
“Hopefully we play three play-off games and win at Wembley,” he continued. “That’s the dream for all of us and it would be a great achievement, but the other teams who finish in the top six will believe they can do it, too. We just need to continue our momentum and confidence and hope that we perform when it comes down to it.”
Will Gregory and co. achieve success in the play-offs? Millwall fans will certainly hope so. For a striker who has made the transition from non-league to League One with relative ease, he will be hoping a weekend trip to Bradford is just the first step on the road to the upper echelons of the Football League.
With the success of his former team-mate, Jamie Vardy, providing added inspiration, the ex-Halifax Town front-man will be safe in the belief that anything is possible.