Right here and right now, Walsall is pretty much the perfect place for Julian Gray.
The winger returned to the Saddlers last month when he signed a short-term contract until January, after two years plying his trade in Cyprus.
Gray was a standout performer in Dean Smith’s side which avoided relegation on the final day in 2011 before heading overseas. His return home was largely triggered by a desire to be closer to his family.
But while he may have recently turned 34, the one-time Birmingham City star says he remains as hungry as ever.
“When the passion is not there anymore, that is when I’ll stop,” he says. “But the passion is still burning, I just want to work hard and learn.”
He adds: “There were a few other options other than Walsall. I could have stayed in Cyprus had I wanted to, there was an offer from another team.
“But I needed to come home. I wanted to be closer to my family and Walsall was a great fit. Obviously with the relationship I have with Dean, this is the perfect place for me.”
Gray’s desire can easily be evidenced by the fact he spent more than a month training with the Saddlers, making a couple of appearances for the club’s reserves, before earning a deal.
The London-born wideman, whose career has included stops at Crystal Palace, Coventry and Cardiff, had returned to England after two seasons spent playing for Nea Salamina Famagusta in the Cypriot First Division.
The move came about through Gray’s friendship with former Saddler Tom Williams, who is half-Cypriot and had contacts on the island.
But while Gray found no problem adapting to a different culture, he admits the strain of being away from his family eventually proved too much.
“It’s a bit different to how we do things over here,” he says. “But there is nice food, great weather, I met some great people and played with some good players.
Overall, it was a good experience.
“But being over there for two years on your own does take its toll. My wife wasn’t with me, though they would obviously come over and visit.
“The first year I was coming back quite often because there were a few more international breaks,
“But the second season was very tough, there weren’t so many breaks and I found I was on my own a lot. I missed home.
“Every-day living is fine. It’s a good life, there are places to go and eat, you have the beach. If you have your family with you it’s great but when you are on your own, it’s not easy.”
Much has changed since Gray last made a first-team appearance. From relegation battlers, Smith has transformed Walsall into a side with ambitions at the other end of the table and in terms of attacking players, he is very much the veteran.
Gray is keen to pass on his experiences to younger players such as Ashley Hemmings and James Baxendale – but believes there is plenty he can learn from them.
“The first job is to get in the team and take it from there,” he said. “In terms of passing on advice to the younger players, that is what you try to do.
“But you listen to them too. Just because they are young doesn’t mean they don’t know anything.”