Demarai Gray sat down for an interview with the Official Matchday Programme ahead of the Premier League clash against Southampton.
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Demarai Gray is no stranger to pressure or responsibility - both were thrust upon him at a young age.
Before his 20th birthday, he’d played 78 times for his boyhood club Birmingham City and was already a Premier League champion.
He’s 26 now, with more than 300 senior appearances to his name, and he admits those early formative years played a crucial role in his development and the player he is today.
“It’s nearly 10 years since my first senior appearance and I am starting to realise just how quickly football goes,” says the softly-spoken attacker at Finch Farm as he sits down shortly after a training session.
“I think it was good for my career to break through so early. I matured a lot quicker than other players my age. I was going off with England at various age groups when many other players my age were still playing for the Under-21s at club level. I feel like it put me a step ahead.
“For any young lad coming through at your local club, it’s a great feeling. You have ambitions to make it to the first team, and I was fortunate to get that opportunity to play in front of your home fans in your home city.”
Having come through Birmingham’s academy, Gray was just 17 when he made his senior bow for the Midlands club, coming on as a 91st-minute substitute for Jesse Lingard in a 4–0 win against Millwall in October 2013. Gray signed his first professional contract eight weeks later and finished the campaign having scooped the Club’s Academy Player of the Season award.
“It’s a club that brought me up and I have a lot of memories there,” he says. “They have had a number of problems behind the scenes, but it’s a good environment for players coming through, and I think the record of who they have brought through backs that up, obviously, Jude Bellingham being the most recent.
“The way they’ve done that is a credit to them and Birmingham as a city.”
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GRAY WINS PL GOAL OF THE MONTH
Gray quickly established himself as a permanent fitting in Birmingham's starting XI that following season, making 42 appearances across the course of the campaign, something that inescapably led to a swell of interest in the teenager from different quarters.
“I know there was some buzz around my name like there is with any young English player coming through,” admits Gray.
“But I was lucky – the media scrutiny now is much more intense.
“I tried not to let any of it get to my head. They expect you to be the next big thing, and quickly talk about your next move to a top club. I tried not to read into it.
“I was aware how it could turn if things never went that way, and I didn’t want to be asking questions like, 'Have I failed because I have not reached those expectations?' That’s the negative side of it all, but I didn’t let it impact me.
“The only pressure I felt was the pressure I put on myself, in terms of wanting to perform well. I was playing in the Championship at that age, which was tough. You have good and bad periods, but that’s how that division is, it’s relentless.
“Regardless of all of that, I just really enjoyed playing.”
Inevitably, though, the attacker’s talents were destined for a greater stage and in January 2016, Leicester City activated the release clause in Gray's Birmingham contract.
“It was a strange move, initially,” says Gray. “We played them in pre-season, and I had a good game, scored a goal, and then they approached me. But at the time, I still didn’t really want to let go of Birmingham, I was happy, I was playing every week and had a good relationship with the manager.
“They came back in for me late in December, and I remember at the time I was watching them play against Chelsea. They battered them and were top of the league at this point. I obviously started thinking, ‘This looks like a very good project and they’re having a very good season’.
“Logistically it wasn’t far from home, and I could still be close to my family, so after speaking with the manager and so on, I decided to go.
“I love Birmingham, I will always love the club. Maybe one day much later down the line I will go back. But the decision to leave obviously proved to be one of the best choices I ever made.”
Gray joined when Claudio Ranieri’s Foxes were in full flow and charging toward the most unlikely of Premier League title successes.
“Going into that winning environment was a dream,” he admits. “Those six months in which we went on to win the league, it was honestly a fairytale.
“We had hardly any tough weeks. The biggest disappointment was drawing games because of the form we were in, it was just a really special time. I was grateful to be a part of that.”
Gray’s gratitude for that period in his career has only intensified to taste success in the royal blue of Everton.
As the seasons progressed and with Leicester struggling to sustain the lofty heights they’d set themselves, his prominence at the club dwindled and playing opportunities decreased.
A chance of a fresh start with the German club Bayer Leverkusen presented itself in January 2021.
“I started well in Germany, getting goals and assists in my first few games, but there were things that made it tough,” he admits.
In March, just two months after signing, Hannes Wolf replaced Peter Bosz.
“The changing of the manager didn’t help,” says Gray. “The shape didn’t suit me at times, and it was during COVID so I was very homesick, my family couldn’t get out to see me.
“But that’s football, I went out there to explore something else. I wouldn’t say it was the wrong time to go, because everything has worked out well in terms of coming here to Everton, so I am glad I did it and that I got that experience under my belt.”
Gray arrived at Everton in the summer of 2021, still only 25, but having had a fluctuating early career that he was eager to get back on track.
Yet while external noise and pressure could have disrupted others, Gray remained typically serene.
“Everton has a big presence in the Premier League: the players who have played here, the derby, everyone knows this is a big club,” he says.
“For me, I saw it as a new exciting challenge and an easy decision. I knew a few people already at the Club.”
During his first full season, Gray featured in 34 of Everton’s 38 Premier League matches. This season, he has started 17 of 18 league games for Frank Lampard.
“We have had tough times since I have been here, but I don’t regret coming one bit. The Club has been good for me, and to me. I fit in the environment, and I feel like I have developed as a player.”
The underlying numbers would certainly back those claims up. Since the start of last season, Gray has scored more Premier League goals than any other current Everton player (8).
This season he’s also accumulated the team’s most shots (33), registered the highest number of shot-creating actions (59), most touches inside the penalty area (59) and dribble attempts (50).
“I know consistency has let me down over the years, but I am in a place now where I believe I am always capable of helping the team, and that’s what is important,” he says.
Gray has directly scored three of Everton’s past six competitive goals, which includes the stunning curling strike at the Etihad Stadium that not only won the Premier League’s Goal of the Month award for November and December but, more crucially, helped secure a vital point for the Blues at the home of the champions.
Revisiting the subject of responsibility, Gray pauses briefly when asked whether his recent upturn in form has coincided with a feeling of greater responsibility at Everton, particularly given he’s one of the more consistent names in the starting XI.
“Yes, I think that’s part of it,” he admits. “Attacking players have a lot of responsibility because you win games by scoring goals. The space I am in now, and the way I have matured, I have realised that I am probably looked at as one of the players to make a difference.
“For me, feeling valued really helps, and I feel like at Everton, everyone is behind me. I do like the responsibility of trying to win us games, and the manager has made me feel like I can be that person.
“I am not saying he showers me with praise, more that I just feel like everyone in the camp is behind me and believes in me. I have good relationships with everyone here. It gives me that added incentive to go out and fight for the team.
“I feel like I am on the right track right now. The nature of being a wide attacker means you’ll always have periods of doing well and then maybe not so well, but I feel like my game has matured. Sometimes I am even playing centrally, which I feel like I have adapted to, I feel dangerous.
“The [World Cup] break was good for me individually, and the team. We didn’t finish well, so we could reflect and see where we can get better. For me, it was about maintaining that consistency.
“That will bring points to the table for the team. We all need to be more consistent. We’ve shown signs of our quality, and we have some top names on paper, but this is the Premier League, and you can lose if not at your very best. We need to keep the standards high every single day.
"We have a great group here; everyone is together. But when things aren’t going great, we have to get a hold of each other and have brutally honest conversations."
He elaborates further.
“Sometimes it’s needed. You have to do it to get the best out of each other.
“But from the fans right down to the changing room, it’s a very good place and we’re all together. It’s now about getting success and doing better than what we’ve been doing. I am confident there’s more joy ahead.”
In the summer of 2021, when Gray arrived, Everton had just finished a campaign in which they sat second into the Premier League table at Christmas and narrowly missed out on a spot in Europe.
The attacker is nodding before the question is even finished when he’s asked if the eventual goal is to return to those levels with the Club.
However, he’s all too aware of his immediate duties and his message is clear in terms of what is the primary initial focus for him and his teammates.
“We know the size of the task ahead of us this season, and we are only looking at that right now,” says Gray.
“Everton as a club shouldn’t be down there. But I am, and we are at the minute. I think if we can keep on the right path, we can be battling again at the right end of the table.
“These things take time; it’s not going to be at the click of our fingers. We have to regroup, rebuild and focus on the task at hand in terms of climbing the table.
“But for a club of this size, we know where we should be and it’s about getting back to that.”