Interview: Demarai Gray – 'Ranieri has improved me so much already, but now I want more goals'
It all started just past his own penalty area. Leicester were already on their way to a straightforward yet imperative home win over Swansea when their jet-heeled substitute revved up his engine in midfield. First he left Jefferson Montero for dead in a footrace; then, Ashley Williams was taken out with one touch. Montero came back for more, only to be shown a clean pair of heels by the youngster once again.
Four touches later, Claudio Ranieri’s side had netted their fourth goal in a late-season 4-0 win without Jamie Vardy. Demarai Gray had done a different kind of job for his team this time – one he’d been itching to do.
Skip to 00:26 for that run in full
Patience is a virtue
Starting chances in the league were outnumbered 11 to one last term for the Birmingham-born wideman, who joined from his local club for just £3.7 million in January after Leicester activated a criminally low release clause.
It’s already looking like a steal. Although the 20-year-old may not have been able to show much of his A-game for the Premier League champions last season, Leicester’s fans appreciated the selfless job he did in helping them see out crucial victories when the heat was turned high towards the tail end of last season.
“I knew when I signed that they were at the top of the league and I wouldn’t just break into the team,” Gray tells FourFourTwo.
“I wanted to play more from the start, of course, but at 19 I was enjoying Premier League games and every one was an opportunity to impress. I had to be professional and play my part when I came on.
“This year is a fresh start, new season, and this pre-season is my chance to prove I should start matches.”
In the end his efforts paid off, of course – Gray now has a Premier League winner's medal to his name, kept in a box on his bedside. “Nice and safe, so when I go to bed I always see it,” he smiles.
What Claudio sees
Some of the things the manager's said I haven’t quite understood, but then a few weeks later I’ve gotten it. I trust him. He’s got faith in me
Foxes supporters weren’t the only ones impressing with their young winger’s work. Claudio Ranieri was thrilled with Gray’s efforts right from an impressive debut at Tottenham in the FA Cup – and the Italian is almost certain to reward him in the new season.
It’s now been a year since Gray tore Leicester apart in a pre-season friendly at St Andrew’s, when he netted with a brilliant strike and generally shone despite his team’s capitulation from two goals up.
Ranieri had his card marked. By the time push came to shove, and a mooted Premier League switch finally came to fruition after several windows of speculation and five rejected Bournemouth bids, Gray felt the time was finally right to join an upwardly mobile club not far from his hometown.
“He said I’d done well that day,” the 20-year-old grins. “Since then he’s had an eye on me. Having spoken to a few other people I knew he was the sort of person I wanted to work with. I picked Leicester because the manager said he could develop me, and to be honest he’s done that. He was telling me about where he sees me playing and it all just suited. I made the right decision.
“When it comes down to what I need to do, I like speaking to him because he gets through to me. At Birmingham, as a regular starter, I knew what was expected of me. But in this short period at Leicester the manager has worked on me quite a lot. I want to work with him. Everything he’s told me has been positive.
“Some of the things he’s said I haven’t quite understood, but then a few weeks later I’ve gotten it. I trust him, and he’s got faith in me. In the long run I feel like I can keep getting better, getting more opportunities and playing better.”
I’ve already said to the sports scientists that by Christmas I want to be bigger and stronger, which will help me perform better
The bigger picture
This season, then, is Gray’s chance to demonstrate his improvements. Leicester have made no marquee signings despite winning the title and having Champions League football on the horizon, and are clearly building for the future. Of their four summer signings so far, the oldest is goalkeeper Ron-Robert Zieler at 27, with 19-year-old Polish winger Bartosz Kapustka soon to follow.
Doubtlessly, Gray is a big part of those plans – not least with mercurial winger Riyad Mahrez’s short-term future up in the air too. If Ranieri doesn’t feel like the Algerian’s heart is in it, though, he needn’t look very far to find one of his players who’s up for the title defence ahead.
“I’ve not sat down properly with the boss yet, but he’s come up to me a few times to chat, as he does,” Gray says. “He says he wants to kill everybody! He also said he believes in me, and that’s a good confidence boost. But I believe in myself too, and I think if I work hard on and off the pitch then I’ve got an opportunity.
“I want to add more goals to my game. My head’s in the right place – I’m happy, and I just want to improve. I’ve already said to the sports scientists that by Christmas I want to be bigger and stronger, which will help me perform better. A lot of it is down to myself and hard work.”
Those are two words nobody at Leicester needs instilling into their psyche. Gray’s hard yards for Ranieri’s team last season mean he’s almost certain to build on that excellent debut campaign as Leicester prepare to venture into Europe.
With a bit more of that graft, his wish to face Real Madrid and Ronaldo at the Bernabeu might just be granted.
Demari Gray wears the new Adidas Purechaos X16+ available at adidas.com/football
Read more with Demarai Gray in the September 2016 issue of FourFourTwo, as he reveals in more detail how he plans to emulate Riyad Mahrez in 2016/17. Accompanied by our 100-page Season Preview - rating 128 teams - the magazine features the 81 things we want from the new season, including our One-on-One with Nemanja Vidic and interviewees including Javi Martinez, Neymar, Roberto Firmino, Brendan Galloway, Kelechi Iheancaho, Glenn Murray, Alex Iwobi, David Wagner, Sheyi Ojo and Michail Antonio. Plus, we meet footballers' yes men - the player liaison officers who cater to the stars’ whims - and the Wiki geeks - the men who make it possible for fans to use Wikipedia for their football info - as well as asking do team talks matter? The answer might surprise you. Go get it, then subscribe!