WHEN asked to name the favourite player of his 10 years in charge of Gresley, manager Gary Norton has no hesitation as he immediately fires out a name beloved of fans at the Moat Ground – Aaron O’Connor.
The striker, now 29, lit up the Moat with an incredible 80 goals in 127 appearances for Gresley Rovers between August, 2004, and January, 2007.
He blasted the old Rovers to a play-off charge in the UniBond League before leaving for Grays Athletic and a career in the Conference, where he still plays for Newport County.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s Aaron O’Connor,” said Norton.
“We’re still in touch today and I’m very proud he’s gone on to have a great career at Conference level.
“He was instrumental in us reaching the play-offs and had a phenomenal goalscoring record for us.
“He’s a lovely lad, too, and I know he’s still very fond of Gresley.
“If I got a testimonial I’d love to invite him down.”
Norton, who announced he was standing down as Gresley manager on Sunday, also rates a couple of other talents very highly indeed.
“Louis Briscoe was only with us for a short time,” he said. “But you could see the talent he had was something exceptional.
“Marc Goodfellow, too, can do some amazing things with a football.
“There are other names as well – Brian Woodall, who was brilliant for us and earned his chance in the league and David Blenkinsopp, whose goalscoring record was just outstanding.”
Norton has survived a decade of turmoil at the Moat Ground, with the folding of the old Gresley Rovers and the reformation of the new Gresley FC two steps down the non-league pyramid.
The 39-year-old has led the club back to the level they were at before the enforced demotion – with winning the Midland Alliance last season his proudest moment in the dugout.
But it was only a shocking defeat at home to Rocester which made Norton stay at the club with growing work and family commitments.
“No-one expected us to win it at our first attempt,” he said. “I was on the verge of handing over total control to Martin Rowe (joint manager) but it was a 3-0 defeat at home to Rocester in the league cup which changed my mind.
“I told myself I had to stay and sort this shower out!
“We signed Michael Nottingham, James Jepson and Dean Oliver straight away and went on 27-game unbeaten run.
“That was my biggest achievement at the club.”
If winning the Alliance was his biggest achievement, losing in the 2005/06 play-off final to Kendal Town was the biggest disappointment.
A win would have left Gresley at step three of the non-league pyramid, but a late goal consigned them to defeat.
“It was probably a blessing in disguise with the financial problems which soon came to light.” said Norton. “But it was a massive disappointment to lose in the way that we did.
“I was embarrassing! I was crying and so disheartened for the players.
“It would’ve been great to get the club to that level for the players and especially for the fans.”
Jamie Barrett and Mickey Lyons are the only players left at the club from the game – and Norton is hoping that Barrett recovers from a broken hand in time for his last game in charge of Gresley at Rainsworth Miners Welfare on May 4.
“Jamie was there for my first game and I’d love him to be there for my last,” said the Moat boss. “With Carl (Slater) leaving the club the mantle of Mr Gresley probably passed onto him.
“He’s been a terrific servant to the club in his years here.
“My only slight regret is Carl isn’t going to be there for the game because he was a brilliant player for Gresley and a terrific lad.”
Norton is now set to join a board of directors led by chairman Barry North, a man he credits as key in saving the club.
“I’m still a little bit nervous about leaving as manager and whether it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
“I’m a little bit worried I might change my mind.
“I’ve had my first board meeting and I’ve already seen things from another perspective.
“Even in the early days before Gresley Rovers went bust there were late payments and missed payments.
“There’s not been one since the new club was formed – they’ve cut their cloth accordingly.
“Barry has said the club wouldn’t have carried on without me – that’s poppycock!
“Gresley could always find a new manager. But without him I’m not sure there’d be a club left to support.”
Now, Norton is focusing on the final three games of the season, beginning tomorrow with his last home game in charge against Kidsgrove Athletic, kick-off 3pm.
“I’m sure I’ll feel a lump in my throat,” said Norton, a youth player at Burton Albion and solid Gresley reserve team player.
“It’ll be a sad day for me, but I’m sure a few will think good riddance!”