In an interview originally published in Everton’s matchday programme for last month's meeting with Southampton, Demarai Gray talks about the challenge of managing huge personal expectations, a “love-hate relationship” with a former boss, briefly losing his passion for football, the inspirational uncle and family who motivate him today – and a desire to devote his “best years” to the Blues.
When Demarai Gray gives one of his talks to young people at a crossroads in their lives, the speaker is rich on source material.
He can tell his audiences about reaching his own forks in the road and recall fleetingly buying into the hype that surrounded Gray’s emergence as a footballer of serious promise.
There is the story of how the player’s relationship with football became strained and a revitalising move to Everton, via five months in Germany.
And insight into how internal dialogue over a fear of not meeting his own remarkably high standards is employed as a motivational tool.
Gray began ignoring external noise when an electric start as a teenager with Birmingham City was followed by the inevitable levelling off and attendant scrutiny.
“Every young player will enjoy the hype – you start to recognise your potential and how people see you,” says Gray.
“But the minute there is a dip, the player starts questioning themselves.
“I was thinking, ‘Am I this? Am I that? Am I disappointing people?’
“As you mature, you understand it [outside comment and expectation] doesn’t matter.
“You have to enjoy the game to get the best out of yourself.
“I used to look for the praise and the negative comments. I would let the negative things affect me.
“But it is a waste of mental energy, isn’t it?
“I want to do what my manager and team need from me.
“Then, ultimately, I am doing this for myself and my family.”
Gray is a Premier League title-winner with Leicester City and his features betray a sense of sustained wonderment when that success is mentioned.
But the player turned 25 in June and is driven by an acute desire to do justice to a special talent.
“Sometimes, I think about how I’d feel if I don’t achieve what I know I can,” says Gray.
“That scares me, because I know when I finish my career, I wouldn’t be satisfied.
“I put pressure on myself because I know my capabilities. But you have to simplify football, not complicate it. I have the approach of just going out and playing.
“It is what I have done since I was four. What is different 20 years later?
“I am in the best league in the world and am pretty sure that is a compliment to my talent.”
Gray’s introduction to football involved “kicking oranges” around the “little flat” he shared with his mum in the Midlands.
He progressed to “scrunched up old newspapers with masking tape around them” when visiting his nan and cousins.
Cadbury Athletic provided the first platform for organised football and Wolverhampton Wanderers offered the first trial.
“I didn’t like it, I just wanted to play with my mates,” says Gray.
It was Gray’s mum and two uncles who cautioned against declining an invite to join Birmingham City, if the schoolboy was set on football as a career.
Uncle Marlon and Uncle Gary, says Gray, are “the male people in my life, they were supportive of what I wanted to do and believed in me”.
“My mum took me to training on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, for years,” continues Gray.
“She always made sure I was on time and had what I needed.
“Without that, who knows where I would be?
“But the male side, knowing more about football and the little things I needed to do… they played a massive part.”
Uncle Marlon is Marlon Walters.
He is as an indispensable sounding board on football issues after growing up at Wolverhampton Wanderers and thinking “it was the end of the world” when he was released aged 20.
But it is off the field where Walters, who would play for multiple non-league clubs, serves as an inspiration.
Walters’ three-and-a-half-month-old son Marnell died suddenly in 2009.
A quest for “spiritual and emotional fulfilment” – his words – convinced Walters to establish MW Fitness and Community Care – named after Marnell – to improve the lives of young people from difficult backgrounds.
It is in the various settings Walters uses for his mentoring and support – including ‘Let’s Talk’ assemblies and music masterclasses – that Gray contributes his own words of advice and encouragement.
“My uncle helps kids with difficulties, whether it’s mental issues, their homelife, what they’re doing outside school, the decisions they’re making,” says Gray, who has his cousin Marnell’s name inked in artistic lettering on the inside of his right forearm.
“I have come from the same place as a lot of these kids and been in situations where I’ve had to choose the path I want to go down.
“I tell them I grew up with friends, this is the path they chose, I am here because I was dedicated from four years old, not as result of what I’ve done since I made my debut at 17.
“You don’t judge anyone’s choices.
“But you have one life. There is no point wasting it doing things that are not going to benefit you, with people who don’t care for you.
“I encourage them to follow their dreams and do what they enjoy.”
Walters’ influence helped Gray keep sight of what he wanted from life.
And if the player finds himself in a tough spot today, he needn’t look far for perspective.
“Sometimes, if I am down, or not playing well, I look and realise, ‘It is not as bad as you think, there is a way out of this situation’,” says Gray.
“Having something like that happen in his life, and for the family, my little cousin... [tails off].
“It is inspiring to see what my uncle is doing, giving back and helping other children.
“His football journey was a blessing for me.
“The biggest things he put on me were discipline and attitude. Application, being early, being manageable for your coaches, having basic respect.
“I always had ability that stood out.
“But it is not ability that takes you to the top, it is your attitude.”
Gray was a pivotal player for Birmingham in the Championship at 18 and played 78 times for the club he joined aged nine.
He scored a “rocket” in a friendly game against Leicester prior to 2015/16 and was soon approached about a transfer to the King Power Stadium.
“I said, ‘Let me have one more season at Birmingham’,” says Gray.
“But come December, I was at someone’s house watching them beat Chelsea. They were top of the league.
“I was thinking, ‘Flippin’ heck’.
“They came back and it was a no-brainer.”
Gray likens his effortless settling-in process at Leicester to the one he’s experienced with Everton.
It is easy to see why he rubs along with everyone.
He is an obliging and smiling subject as he feints to shoot and juggles balls for the photographs in these pages.
Gray is quietly spoken and doesn’t waste his words. As he talks, he intermittently picks up one of the gleaming orange boots on the desk in front of him and gently squeezes the toe area.
It is when the topic of being a Premier League champion surfaces that Gray runs a silver chain, with crosses at regular intervals, through the fingers of both hands, before fixing it loosely around his neck.
Even sacrificing regular starts to become what England rugby head coach Eddie Jones calls a “finisher” wasn’t a problem, in the circumstances.
“I was happy to sit on the bench and watch what was going on… I was just fascinated,” says Gray.
“It was difficult, in one sense – but I was happy to play my 20-30 minutes to help us win.
“I was grateful to be in a team chasing the title and… thanks to God, I got a Premier League medal.”
Gray’s finest spell at Leicester, personally, coincided with Claude Puel’s 15 months as manager.
There is a broad smile as Gray refers to a “love-hate” relationship and enthuses in equal measure about the stern Frenchman’s relentless cajoling and utter belief in his dazzling winger.
The message is clear. Puel ‘got’ Gray.
In Rafa Benitez at Everton, Gray has found a manager with similar faith in the player’s skill and speed, in his trickery and imagination and personality.
Particularly refreshing is Benitez’s eagerness to mould those attributes into one consistently explosive package.
“I don’t think there’s been a training session yet where Rafa hasn’t told me something I can improve,” says Gray.
“And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I don’t want to be told what I am good at – I want to be told what I can work on.
“I am happy I have an honest manager and confident I am going to improve with him.
“I need to be consistent, to score goals and be productive at the top end of the pitch.
“I genuinely have a good feeling I am going to progress with Everton and the next few years are going to be some of my best.”
Concerns over the course his career was plotting caused Gray to query his relationship with football last year.
He played 18 Premier League minutes in 2020/21 before transferring to Bayer Leverkusen on 31 January.
Gray closes his lips and sighs, generating the universal sound for that was tough.
“It was very hard,” he confirms. “Very hard.
“Any time you go on the pitch and touch the ball, it is the way to keep going, because of your natural love of the game.
“But it got to the point where I lost the love for it.
“It is a team game and I never want to cause any problems. My attitude is good.
“But if you are not being rewarded for training well, you ask yourself, 'What’s the point?'
“You have to find it in yourself to stay strong – if you go in and sulk it is a wasted day.
“But it is how you are feeling and coping at home.
“At the start, I didn’t cope well.
“I probably made the wrong decisions… but I don’t regret it – it is part of learning.
“If I am in that situation again, I have to focus on getting back in the team, not waste time making the wrong decisions.”
Gray chose Leverkusen over an offer from a Premier League club “because I’d been through a difficult time and wanted to get out and have a new challenge”.
He initially lived in a hotel room and after two months moved into an unfurnished home in Dusseldorf.
The attacker scored 10 minutes after coming on for his debut against Stuttgart and was quickly established in the team, only for a managerial change in March – Hannes Wolf replaced Peter Bosz – to reduce the Englishman’s status.
“I was thinking, ‘I have sacrificed a lot, left my family behind, left everything at home, and I am not playing’,” says Gray.
“But I am glad I was brave enough to go.
“It was difficult at the beginning.
“You feel sorry for yourself, at times, and the Covid situation made it tougher.
“But I took myself out of my comfort zone and had to mature.
“My girlfriend came out after a while and I began adapting to the culture and German life.
“I learned a lot from it.
“I recognised I am a home person and need my family around me.
“In Birmingham, I had my mum and nan and uncle 15 minutes away, so I could relax.
“Out there, you go to work, get back, eat, sleep and repeat.
“It has toughened up my thought processes and turned me into more of a man, I think.
“And the way things have worked out is perfect.
“If I chose the other option [Premier League club] it wouldn’t have been possible to make it happen when Everton wanted me.
“Growing up, if someone mentioned Everton, I’d think, ‘Yeah, big club, good club, when Goodison is bouncing, it is really bouncing’.
“Coming here was an easy decision.”
Gray has seen Jordan Pickford, Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin launch international careers playing for Everton – and is confident the Club can provide a stage for England recognition.
He scored eight goals in 26 appearances for the country’s Under-21 team.
UEFA’s technical report from the 2019 Under-21 European Championship contains some instructive detail about the Midlander.
Gray’s 46 final-third passes were the most of any England player – six more than Phil Foden– and he delivered more crosses (five) than any of his teammates.
There was depressing pause for thought over those England ambitions, nonetheless, when the three players who missed penalties in this summer’s European Championship final were subjected to online racist abuse.
“We are taking the knee but the people giving abuse from behind a screen don’t care,” says Gray.
“I am all for being involved and showing it is a good cause – but you see what happened to the boys who missed the penalties and there is your answer.
“Young, black English players – and kids – will see the abuse and may not want to play for England, which is sad.
“No mother will want their child to potentially be in that situation.
“And no human would want to be in that situation. I wouldn’t. It is not fair.
“When things are all good and our black players are scoring the goals, everything is great.
“Then we get to a final, which hasn’t been done in so long, fall short at the end, but the whole country has been brought together by these players, and some people shut them down like that.
“It is not a good sign.”
“I’d like to say, I don’t care, this is how people are – but if I was attacked like those players? We are human, it would affect anyone.”
Returning to the nuts and bolts of football, Gray’s deal with Everton is for three years, with an option for a further 12 months.
The collective aim, he says, is “to improve our league position… and consistently push for Europe”.
“The way Benitez is," continues Gray, "his history and what he has achieved, I am sure he is coming in to lift the team to those levels.
“He is not a manager who is happy with his team being comfortable.
“But nothing happens overnight. It is the best league in the world, we have to be realistic and keep building every season.
“I am so happy to be here, it is a great club, with a great manager and great bunch of boys.”
Everything Gray wants to achieve with those vivid boots on his feet is inextricably linked to the family he treasures.
He is a father and has a younger sister, Olivia.
“My sister is just like me, she is glued to my mum,” says Gray.
“She is nine and way ahead of her years, already having business ideas.
“I have no worries about her, she will be fine.
“That is partly my influence – but, obviously, the way my mum raised and helped me, she is doing the same for her.
“We are very tight-knit, the three of us.
“It was difficult for them when I was in Germany. Now my family can watch me… I am glad I can be an influence and inspiration.
“I want to support them and look after them. And to make them happy… that is the purpose, isn’t it?”