JAMES Gray has earned praise from manager James Beattie after transforming himself from a lightweight to a physical force.
The Accrington Stanley striker was outmuscled in games and ultimately muscled out of the team by powerhouse Kayode Odejayi.
But Beattie has been impressed by Gray since he forced his way back into the side – delivering a stand-out performance in the win over then leaders Chesterfield. And now he has got the shirt, the Reds boss has challenged him to keep it.
“James has done a tremendous job since he came in,” he said.
“He looks like he is enjoying his football and throwing his weight around.
“He’s only a relatively small lad, but he is strong.
“I love it that he is more physical. He’s a massive threat when he’s one-on-one with someone, he can take someone on.
“At the beginning of the season he was a little bit lightweight.
“When I was playing I enjoyed the physical battle and he has become a real handful. He loves putting himself about and it gives centre halves a massive problem. He’s getting himself chances and getting into positions where he can score.
“I challenged him to keep the shirt, and up to now he’s done a great job in that.
“He’s a great lad and he’s certainly taken on board a few things that I’ve said.”
Ahead of tomorrow’s long trip to Exeter City, Beattie says the Northern Ireland Under 21 international is not alone in having a strong end to the season.
“Will Hatfield is another example. He’s probably the first name on the teamsheet at the moment,” said the Stanley boss.
“He started the season but didn’t really have the effect I would have liked, but now he is playing out of his skin.
“People sometimes don’t appreciate what the shirt means to them until they lose it.”
The duo’s form is one of the reasons why Stanley have been able to name a strong bench, with experienced players such as Odejayi and Danny Webber not guaranteed a place in the line-up.
And it is the luxury of a strong bench which lessened the urgency for Beattie to add deadline day reinforcements.
“We’ve got a great squad at the moment and I don’t think we would want to change it and upset the applecart, as it were, and upset the lads,” he said.
“If we could get a top quality player in then maybe, but we haven’t got the money for that.
“I think this squad of players is going to be the one we’ll finish the season with. Since the moment I walked through the door I’ve enjoyed working with them.
“The way they’ve responded to the start we had has been incredible and they deserve a lot more credit than they’re getting.”
He added: “The team and the bench in recent weeks has been exceptional.
“Barring massive injuries we should be okay and finish the season and carry on the momentum on the pitch.”
Left back Laurence Wilson is facing around two further weeks on the sidelines with a groin injury, while Marcus Carver suffered medial ligament damage after making his comeback following his recovery from surgery to his shin earlier this season.