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 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.
“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.
Once for a League Cup tie against Swindon in which Mendez-Laing started and secured the Man of the Match award, but, prior to that, even more memorably, in Wolves’ first ever away win in the Premier League, at Wigan.
“After doing well that pre-season I was actually in the first team squad for a good few games at the start of the season, although only making it to the bench on a couple of occasions,” Spray recalls.
“That Wigan game, the first away one of the Premier League season, was a great experience although also quite intimidating at the same time!
“We travelled for away games the day before, so I had a whole day with the squad and at the time I was quite shy, not as confident as I am now.
“But with the game, Andy Keogh headed in the winner and I can still remember the Wolves fans filling the away end and how it felt great to be a part of.
“I warmed up a few times but with the game being so close the chances of me getting on the pitch were minimised – maybe if we’d been behind and chasing, I might have had an opportunity.
“It was the three points that were most vital, although I was chosen to be drug tested after the game which meant I missed out on sharing in the celebrations in the dressing room!”
As a quiet and unassuming presence at that stage – understandably given he was only 16 – Spray benefitted from the support and calming influence of the likes of Richard Stearman and Matt Jarvis.
As he continued his development within Academy and reserve football, it was two years later he enjoyed that memorable introduction against Millwall and yet, ultimately, that was to prove as good as it got.
Never again did Spray appear in a first team squad, a few months later he went to Accrington Stanley on loan but, struggling with a hamstring injury, he made three appearances before heading back.
And at the end of that 2011/12 season, nine months after making his debut, Spray was released, and his six-year journey with Wolves had reached its conclusion.
From there he joined Telford United, but that didn’t prove a success, in part due to turbulent times as the Bucks went through a season with four different managers and a considerably lengthy spell without winning a game.
Spending six months completely away from football, Spray was then persuaded to return by a friend who was in charge at Lye Town, regaining a healthier enjoyment of the sport, as he continued later with several other non-league clubs, including Alvechurch and AFC Wulfrunians.
As dreams of a professional career gradually ebbed away, it wasn’t just not being able to kick on from that Wolves debut that proved difficult for Spray to come to terms with.
Whilst with the club he admitted to having issues with gambling and, whilst he can’t fault the support that he received at the time, he does wonder if that may have played a part in how his career at Molineux came to an end.
“I did have some personal issues but Wolves were very helpful, both from Mick McCarthy himself and by talking to Woody (Mike Wood) and (former player) Jeff Whitley who the club brought in to work with young players,” Spray recalls.
“I also went to the Sporting Chance clinic to address my problems.
“I certainly got all the help that I needed, but, deep down, I do wonder if it was a black mark against me when it came to decisions.
“No one ever said it and it’s just my personal opinion, but I imagine when they were considering everything it would have had a negative effect on my chances.
“I also have to look at myself though, and when things don’t work out, as they didn’t for me in the end, you always feel that you could have done more.
“Should I have done x, y and z differently, and would that have given me more of a chance?
“Sometimes it is about timing as well and for the three years I was a pro at Wolves, the club was battling to stay in the Premier League.
“That was always going to make it difficult to break into the team, whereas there were other times not so long after, especially in League One, where younger players were given an opportunity.
“After I had been released and went to Telford, going to part-time I just wasn’t in the right mindset, and wasn’t putting enough work in on the days that I should have been.
“It is difficult when you are a young player whose life has been aimed at being a professional footballer and, when it doesn’t work out, it is hard to come to terms with.
“You end up in what we all would call ‘normal’ jobs, grafting away, and, certainly in my early twenties, I really struggled.
“It does affect your mental health, and even now I have good days and bad days, but it is all about the experience and learning that you can get through it by talking to people and getting support.”
Spray did actually give it one more go to try and return to the professional ranks just over three years ago, pushing himself to reach a good level of fitness to see if he could impress a club in the Conference or League Two.
Only then, for the pandemic to arrive, lower league and non-league football to shut down, and, in Spray’s words, “it took the wind completely out of my sails”.
Now aged 30, he and partner Hollie have a young daughter Ariya with a son now due to arrive in November, and so, continuing to play football where any injury could end up affecting his livelihood, is a risk which Spray is understandably unwilling to take.
“My primary focus now is to provide for my family,” he says.
And when it comes to that livelihood, Spray has managed to utilise many of the experiences – good and bad – of his time in football and beyond, in his new vocation.
Living in Dudley, he now works within the care sector, supporting young people in a residential home and trying to help them through various complex issues which have turned their lives into a difficult and emotional challenge.
“It may be different issues to what I have been through, but I think my experiences can help the young people, as I feel I am relatable and can understand their situations,” Spray explains.
“For me now, to be able to help anyone on their journey in life, even just a few per cent, makes it all worthwhile and is very rewarding.
“I feel I have good empathy with the young people, and trying to help them comes naturally – it’s a role which I have really taken to.
“We are always striving for positive outcomes for the young people, and if we can help them gain more confidence, develop through education and set themselves goals, then that can really help them move in the right direction.
“I have had my own problems and originally struggled with not making it in football, but now I am comfortable with it all, and feel like all the experiences I have had in life have turned me into the man I am now.
“I have grown and learned to accept it, and I wouldn’t change anything – it’s all part of the package!
“Now I look back and the feelings are only pride, and there are no regrets with anything that has happened.”
Spray is a boyhood Aston Villa fan, and cites the current team as ‘the best I have seen at Villa in my lifetime’.
But in his eyes, local rivalries extend only to Birmingham City, as he retains huge affection for Wolves and is still in touch with many former team-mates, particularly Gorman, with whom he shared lodgings with and who recently visited for the gender reveal of the impending new arrival.
“Wolves will always have a place for me, because I spent so many years there and got opportunities there that I am really thankful for,” he admits.
“Yes, I still want Villa to win when the two teams play, but Wolves is a really good club and I like to see them doing well.”
What then might he say to Fraser, were he to be given the chance? How best could a young striker who has initially followed in his footsteps try and go on and make a career?
“If I it was me now, I would just say to keep working,” is Spray’s response.
“There can be an aspect of making your debut and getting a bit carried away and thinking you’ve made it, but while it’s a big step, it’s also only a little step in that you hope it is just the beginning.
“I’d say it’s about pushing on, keeping your head down and working hard and listening to advice.
“Hopefully he can go on from here and do really good things within the game.”
For Spray, life didn’t move in the direction he would have liked after his moment in the Molineux sun, but that is certainly nothing to be bitter about or to be ashamed of.
It was just part of his overall story so far, and in facing up to his issues, and using his experiences as a positive, he is now offering other young people the prospect of enjoying a brighter and more fulfilling future.