DARREN Manning cannot wait to return to Grays Athletic for the first time since leaving their assistant manager post in favour of the top job at Hullbridge Sports two years ago.

Manning guided Sports to the Essex Senior League title last term and a trip to Parkside to face high-flying Grays is in the offing tomorrow.

And Manning insists this weekend’s clash was the first encounter he looked for when the Isthmian North fixtures were released during the summer.

“I can’t wait for this weekend and going away to Grays was the first fixture I looked for after our promotion,” said the Hullbridge chief.

“It’s crazy how James Wakeling (Manning’s assistant manager) and I used to play down at the Ball Court at Grays’ former Recreation Ground home and then watch the matches.

“Now we are going up against them in a competitive fixture and it feels surreal.

“I’m also looking forward to pitting my wits against Jim Cooper because he is an experienced manager who I have a lot of respect for.”

Having enjoyed a spell as former Grays boss Jamie Stuart’s assistant manager, Manning succeeded Rob Hodgson as Hullbridge chief in November 2017.

Manning looks back on his time as Stuart’s right-hand man with great fondness and remains grateful for the opportunity.

“I have some fantastic memories from my time at Grays and it’s a club I love,” added Manning.

“Jamie is a legend at the club and I couldn’t have asked for more as my apprenticeship before becoming a first team manager.

“It was a great time for me and it put me on the path to having great times at Hullbridge.”

Although Manning has close ties to Grays, he is fully focused on bagging three points for Sports.

Hullbridge make the trip to Parkside having made an encouraging start to their first ever campaign in the fourth tier of non-league football.

Sports are currently 15th in the Isthmian North standings and, although Grays head into the weekend in the play-off positions, Manning is confident his outfit will record a positive result this weekend.

“Although I know a lot of people behind the scenes at Grays and it is a club close to my heart, I want to get some stick because I’m looking to beat them,” admitted Manning.

“I am confident whoever we are playing and it will be no different tomorrow.

“We have a game plan and I’m sure we’ll get a positive result.”