Shropshire Star

Former Wolves youngster James Spray on debut goal, gambling and move to part-time

Emerging through the ranks to turn professional after several years in Wolves Academy, playing for the first team in pre-season friendlies, landing a debut as a substitute in a home League Cup tie, coming off the bench and scoring in a 5-0 win at Molineux.

James Spray fires at goal in his first team debut for Wolves after coming off the bench to score against Millwall at Molineux

James Spray knows exactly what young striker Nathan Fraser would have been feeling after last week’s goal and win against Blackpool.

Because, some 12 years ago now, he did exactly the same.

Spray was 18, just like Fraser, and fairly local, albeit from Halesowen a few miles further away from Molineux and the training ground than Fraser’s roots in Tettenhall.

Wolves were taking on Millwall in the third round of the then Carling Cup and, three-nil to the good after 74 minutes thanks to Dave Edwards, Adam Hammill and George Elokobi, Spray was sent on from the bench.

Within just three minutes, having played the ball out wide, Spray got himself in the box where the ball dropped to him and he dispatched it into the net, with the aid of a deflection, just like Fraser.

Adlene Guedioura then stole the headlines with an absolutely thumping fifth from distance but, for Spray, nothing could take away from what was a very special night.

“I remember warming up in the second half when we were 3-0 up, and Jamie O’Hara was telling me I would be going on, and giving me a little pep talk,” Spray recalls.

“It was a surreal feeling making my debut, but because I was so ‘in the moment’, I didn’t really take everything in at the time.

“I was just so focused on getting my touch right and trying to get in the right positions.

“But to then score – well it doesn’t get any better – and it’s something no one can ever take away from me and a memory I will always look back on and be very proud of.

Celebrating success with Nathan Rooney in the Gothia Cup

“My Mum and Dad were in the crowd and they came down after the game buzzing for me and I remember getting in my car and switching my phone on and it was blowing up with messages from people who had seen the goal on Sky Sports News.

“It was just a really nice moment.”

Reaching that moment, and that achievement, had been the result – as with all young players – of many years of painstaking hard work and overcoming challenges and obstacles during life in the Academy.

Spray had followed a familiar route of schools, district, county and Sunday League junior football before attending several Academy trials, Wolves winning the race to snap him up at the age of 13.

Joining midway through the season he initially found it difficult to settle, but then, after a summer of hard work, and the coaching expertise of John Trollope and Des Davies, he started to flourish, culminating in being a part of the ground-breaking Gothia Cup success of 2009.

The Gothia Cup is a pre-season tournament in Sweden billed as the world’s largest and most influential, attracting clubs and junior sides from across the world, and the Wolves Academy class of that year, coached by Kevin Thelwell and Mick Halsall and with current Head of High Performance Phil Hayward overseeing medical operations, comprised a particularly strong group.

Spray took his place in a squad including – amongst others – Ethan Ebanks-Landell, Jack Price, Anthony Forde, Zeli Ismail, Liam McAlinden, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, Jamie Reckord and Johnny Gorman.

Many of those names went on to play regularly at professional level – some still do – but it was still a major achievement to come through and win the tournament, beating Brazilian side and hot favourites Cruzeiro on penalties in the final thanks largely to the heroics of goalkeeper Daniel East.

“The Gothia Cup was a great experience, going abroad and playing teams from different countries and then beating a Brazilian side in the final in a big stadium,” says Spray.

“It helped form a really strong bond with those lads, many of whom went on to play at a really decent level.

“I think that tournament was the trigger for a lot of us, and, after we had won it, (Wolves boss) Mick McCarthy asked the coaches for the three best players who would then go and feature in a pre-season friendly at Walsall.

“It was myself, Zeli and Nat Mendez-Laing who were chosen, and we all got on at Walsall and I then played 70 minutes of a friendly at Port Vale after an early injury.

“I remember Mick then did an article about me in the Express & Star, and it was all going very well, although definitely a lot quicker than anticipated!”

Spray would go on and sign his first professional contract on his 17th birthday in the December of 2009, by which point, over two years before that eventual first team debut, he had already appeared twice on the bench for the first team.