Why Demarai Gray is the Championship's most exciting youngster
The 60-second story
- Full name: Demarai Ramelle Gray
- Date of birth: June 28, 1996
- Place of birth: Birmingham, England
- Height: 5ft 10in
- Position: Winger
- Club: Birmingham; 29 apps, 5 goals
- Former clubs: Cadbury Athletic (junior)
- International: England U19; 1 cap, 0 goals
Birmingham City are currently on the road to redemption under new manager Gary Rowett, and one player who has helped him along the way has been the man they signed from Cadbury Athletic aged 10 – tricky winger Demarai Gray.
The Birmingham-born teenager made his debut for the Blues last season under Lee Clark before becoming an ever-present for new boss Rowett, under whom he has started the last seven Championship games.
The right-footed left-winger scored a 34-minute hat-trick against Reading in mid-December which made plenty sit up and take notice, and he has been linked to a number of Premier League clubs since.
Bournemouth have had two bids for the 18-year-old turned down this January – the first, £1.5 million, deemed insulting, and an improved £2m one also knocked back. Crystal Palace came calling in the summer, while a raft of other big Premier League clubs have all been linked in the last year, including Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool.
However, with the impressive Rowett coaching him through the early stages of his career, you would expect his feet will be kept firmly on the ground.
Why you need to know him
Last season he was named Birmingham’s coaches’ academy player of the season. If you support a Championship club, the chances are that he'll cause your right-back problems when you play the West Midlands side for the second time this season.
He has recently moved up the ladder with England and is now part of Sean O’Driscoll’s Under-19 squad alongside the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Patrick Roberts and Dele Alli.
Gray is following in the footsteps of fellow Cadbury Athletic alumnus Daniel Sturridge, who was spotted playing for the youth side by Aston Villa aged seven.
Birmingham fans have been blessed with good wingers in recent years, including the likes of Nathan Redmond who later joined Norwich for around £3m. And although Gray's pace may not be of Redmond’s level, his dribbling is certainly better. He has intelligence in his play and has been described as having an old head on young shoulders by some onlookers.
Those thoughts were backed up by Rowett, who said recently: “When you speak to him he’s actually a bright lad. Kev Summerfield (assistant manager) went through lots of clips with him last week and worked with him on one or two things. He said Demarai came up with most of the answers. He knows where he should be and knows what runs he should make, and he works out things for himself quite quickly.”
He’s certainly one of those who gets fans on the edge of their seats, which is welcome relief after the dismal home form Birmingham endured up until a short while ago. Gray has the ability to embarrass his opponents, and while flicks and tricks may not be his thing, the 18-year-old has the ability to glide past full-backs with good acceleration and close control.
His defensive game appears to be improving week by week, and in former Leicester stopper Rowett he has a good manager to help him in that area. Some fans will tell you that even playing as an inverted winger he cuts inside too often, and they would prefer him to go past his marker.
In his more ineffective games he could be accused of being too predictable, yet he seems to thrive when playing on the same touchline as his new manager – something which has not got unnoticed by fans who are keen to see Rowett coaching him through games.
Being the age he is, inconsistency is still an issue, proven by the fact he’d scored just once this season before his treble against Reading. He hadn’t really contributed much to games in the weeks leading up to that, and while he had been the team’s bright spark, his end product was lacking when he did manage to get by his marker. By the same token, his relative inexperience makes him an easy target to be substituted when things are not going quite to plan for Rowett’s team – he's only finished one game under the Blues' new boss.
While his agile frame allows him to saunter past many an opponent, it seems he meets his match against a marker who can match his speed but exert superior strength. Still, there is little doubt that as he grows more accustomed to first-team action, he'll be able to overcome the burliest of full-backs.
“The biggest thing for me is that he’s an intelligent lad and quite grounded,” manager Rowett said recently. “It’s a good start but the important thing for him is to realise it’s a very small step he’s taken towards where his ambitions want to lead to. We’ve got to make sure he remains focused, but I’ve not seen anything yet to suggest he’s going to get carried away with it.”
Did you know?
The youngster was born two days after England were dumped out of Euro 96 on penalties to Germany. With that, he's currently the only player born after that tournament started to have scored a league hat-trick.
- Shooting 7
- Heading 5
- Passing 7
- Tackling 7
- Pace 8
- Dribbling 8
- Creativity 7
- Work-rate 8
What happens next?
Gray needs to continue his form into the second half of the season, and will aim to complete more matches. Birmingham only tied him to new deal until June 2016 just over a year ago, but it is being reported that talks are underway again to pin the teenager down for a further two years.
That's if they can even keep him for another year. After Bournemouth's moves, Rowett conceded that interest was inevitable. “When you've got an 18-year-old playing as well as he’s playing you can’t stop speculation, or people being interested,” said the 40-year-old. “But there is no point in me commenting on what I think might happen because there are so many variables. All I can say is that Demarai is an excellent player, and part of my plans going forward because he has got excellent talent.”
Another full season in the Championship is likely to do Gray well in the long-term. Last year the Blues’ financial situation may have forced his departure, but things have changed since and he is expected to stick around for a while longer.
That said, links with some of the country's biggest teams will inevitably make life difficult for Birmingham – not least with a reported clause in his current contract which states that Liverpool have first refusal on him thanks to Jordon Ibe's loan at St Andrew's last season.