Demarai Gray is aiming to grow into an Everton game-changer following a bright debut Goodison Park campaign.
Forward Gray, who turns 26 next week, directly contributed to 11 goals – scoring six – in his opening season after joining Everton from Bayer Leverkusen in summer 2021.
He reserved his most critical contribution for the closing home game against Crystal Palace. Sent on as a second-half substitute, Gray delivered a precision free-kick for Dominic Calvert-Lewin to complete Everton’s recovery from two goals down and book a Premier League berth for 2022/23.
Gray assisted Richarlison for the only goal in a precious late-season victory over Chelsea, too.
And the former Leicester City player, who began 30 of 39 games last term and is acutely aware of significant competition for a starting position, is adamant he can multiply those decisive contributions in his second season on Merseyside.
“As a winger, you are viewed as a player who can win games every week,” said Gray.
“It is a position with a lot of responsibility, and I put that pressure on myself. I enjoy it and go out there thinking I am the player who will make the difference.
"It won’t always happen, other things have an influence, like injuries. When the quiet patches come, I accept they are part of the game, and don’t get too down.
“It is just a matter of working to change things and trusting in my ability.
“When it is a difficult moment for the team, I view myself as someone who can change the situation and give the team confidence. I want to be that player making the difference.”
Gray began his career with Birmingham City, where he thrived on a prominent role at the age of 18 after Gary Rowett was appointed manager with the club struggling at the foot of the Championship in November 2014.
Rowett, a former player at Goodison, recently told evertonfc.com that Gray’s “sparkle in the final third and ability to go past people” added up to an unarguable case for selection, even at such a tender age.
Gray ultimately played 58 matches for Rowett, who rates the player to such a degree he maintains the two-footer should be contending for England honours.
A transfer to Leicester midway through 2015/16 earned Gray a string of Premier League appearances off the bench – and the most extraordinary of title-winning medals.
But 50 off 99 league outings over the following three seasons came as a substitute.
In the subsequent two campaigns, prior to transferring to Everton, Gray started a total of eight top-flight games in England and Germany.
Little wonder, then, that Gray encountered a phase during the second half of last term when, by his own reckoning, regular action physically caught up with him.
He managed a career-high 28 top-division starts regardless, and the objective now is for season-on-season improvement in every meaningful metric: starts and goals and assists.
“Gary Rowett is one of the best gaffers I’ve had,” said Gray, revisiting his professional breakthrough.
“He gave me that freedom as a young lad playing for my hometown club and massively assisted with my move to Leicester.
“I respect him a lot.
“I don’t really think too much about England anymore, though.
“I think long-term and about what I aspire to.
“It starts with your club. I have to perform consistently for Everton and understand I play in the area of the pitch where it is probably hardest to earn a place.
“I fully believe I can compete with the players here, but talk is cheap, I have to show it every week, whether that is with goals or assists or helping the team any other way.
“I need to make every manager I am working under think the same way Gary Rowett did: ‘Demarai has to play, no matter what’.
“My goal is to play every game.”
One of Gray’s direct competitors for an Everton frontline position is Anthony Gordon.
If the pair are sometimes foes in respect of trying to twist the arm of manger Frank Lampard over selection, they have struck up a strong friendship off the field.
Gordon was crowned Everton’s Players’ Player of the Season, to add to young player honours, following a soaring personal campaign.
None of which surprised Gray, who was an impressed onlooker from Leicester City’s bench when Gordon unsettled the visitors in a Goodison game in July 2020.
“I thought he was lively back then and he’s the one I saw grow as a player throughout last season,” said Gray.
“I am a big fan of Ant’s and have a good relationship with him.
“We come together naturally, playing the same position, and talk before and during every game, whoever is starting.
“I sit by him in the dressing room, so we talk at half-time, too.
“I class myself as a senior player. I’ve played hundreds of games, while he's just finished his first full Premier League season.
“I will always try to help him when I can, whether it is discussing an opposition player, or set-pieces, or how to use space on the pitch.
“It is easy to forget he is so young, because he plays with such maturity.
“Playing for Everton comes with big pressure and big responsibility.
“He is a player who wants a fight and will take that responsibility and is another one capable of making the difference in games.
“We are fighting for the same thing, for Everton to win games, and are always trying to help each other.”