England internationals come at a premium, but not before their debut. Rafa Benitez may have just unlocked a late bloomer from a golden Three Lions generation in Demarai Gray.
Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Jack Grealish, Jordan Pickford, Ben Chilwell – the list of stars Gray combined with at under-21 level goes on. He was a leading light in those teams, too.
While that crop of future talents turned into present Euro 2020 heroes in July, Gray watched his former team-mates from home. He’d just completed an underwhelming six months with Bayern Leverkusen after being frozen out by Brendan Rodgers at Leicester. Aged 25, time was sliding away.
Demarai Gray is back in England with a bang, scoring three from four for Everton this season
Dominic Calvert-Lewin is set for a spell on the sidelines, and Gray could fill in for the striker
BACK IN THE BIG TIME
Gray’s sensational Premier League return so far…
3-1 Southampton – 0 goals/83 mins
2-2 Leeds – 1 goal/83 mins
2-0 Brighton – 1 goal/81 mins
3-1 Burnley – 1 goal/88 mins
Fast-forward two months and Gray’s world has flipped. The Brummie speedster has matched Romelu Lukaku’s goal tally four games into the Premier League season and his new Everton squad sit joint-top of the division.
Having signed for just £1.7m, the 2016 Premier League champion is already looking like one of the bargains of the summer.
Gray set out his targets clearly upon arrival at Goodison. He speaks with clarity and impressive self awareness: ‘I want to push on, be a pivotal player in the squad, help the team score goals and assist goals.
‘I feel like I’m at a period in my career now where I can put everything together and achieve the targets I have set for myself.
‘I’m a speedy, tricky winger who enjoys running with the ball. I like to play anywhere along the front three and I feel like I can be dangerous in all areas. And with the ability I know I have and the belief in myself, I can help this team.’
Gray has been tipped for the top ever since he rose through Birmingham City’s academy to make his Championship debut aged 17 – clearing the path Jude Bellingham followed years later.
That Gray wound-up in Germany on his ‘mad journey’ betrays the fact his career did veer off track, having made a promising start at Leicester following a £3.7m transfer – still the largest fee paid for the Englishman’s services.
Gray made his Championship for Birmingham aged 17 after rising through their academy
Gray made a strong start to life at Leicester and lifted the Premier League title in 2015-16
The youngster’s Leicester career stuttered under Brendan Rodgers and he left for Germany
The Foxes were unfathomably top of the Premier League when Gray signed in January 2016, as Claudio Ranieri bled him into top-flight life gently. He lifted the title at 20, before becoming a first-team regular through the end of Ranieri’s reign and into Claude Puel’s.
But Brendan Rodgers’ appointment instantly spelled trouble. Though the tough-talking Northern Irish boss called Gray a ‘talented lad’, he didn’t fancy the winger for his Foxes revolution. Before Christmas of 2020, Gray realised his Leicester days were done.
Bayer Leverkusen offered an escape, a ‘perfect challenge’ and the chance to chase some of the success younger English talents like Jadon Sancho were already experiencing in the Bundesliga.
He returned to England this summer with just one goal to show, scoring it on his debut. But something more valuable had triggered on the inside.
‘One thing I took from Germany was just more mental strength – how to overcome situations and your thoughts,’ Gray explained, speaking to his new club’s YouTube.
‘The mental side is part of the game that isn’t taken into consideration. If you’ve gone through a bad patch people think this and that, but you never know how someone is doing off the pitch.
‘Everyone has obstacles in life but since my spell in Germany I just feel rejuvenated, more of a man, more mature. I think you can see it in my game.’
Goodison Park was the place to be on Monday night as Gray blew the roof off the old ground
Gray’s speed coupled with his new-found poise have made him a deadly threat this season
The best place to see it was Goodison Park on Monday, when Rafa Benitez’s men had the old ground rocking again.
The 66th minute of Everton’s 3-1 victory over Burnley felt like a coming of age for Demarai Gray, 60 seconds after fellow bargain buy Andros Townsend had thundered his new club ahead.
Townsend set off a counter-attack moments later, with Abdoulaye Doucoure bounding down the right flank. Gray spotted a gap through the centre of Burnley’s defence and didn’t hesitate, speeding onto a glorious pass.
His first touch oozed confidence, the second was silky smooth and the ruthlessly clinical finish took the roof off Goodison. They like their new No 11.
Gray’s fist-pumping, knee-sliding, roaring celebration marked the vindication of his decision to abandon that German adventure and return to the Premier League. He’s found a place where he’s wanted, and needed.
The 25-year-old is what Everton have been screaming for. He’s helped get Benitez winning and Goodison singing – more than most of the club’s recent signings.
Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray make a cheap but potent pairing on the wings for Everton
Everton have been wasteful in the market for years, buying the likes of £35m Yannick Bolasie
Farhad Moshiri has splurged £500million on incoming transfers since taking ownership of the Blues in 2016. They have finished no higher than seventh since.
Yannick Bolasie (£30m), Davy Klaassen (£24m), Theo Walcott (£20m), Alex Iwobi (£35m) and many more have made little impact, and now the club are paying for it.
Gray was the marquee summer signing at £1.7m this year, with Townsend, Asmir Begovic, Andy Lonergan and Salomon Rondon all arriving on free transfers.
Benitez knows how to operate on a tight budget and the former Liverpool boss has begun his controversial Goodison reign winning, with only two points dropped so far this term. They’ll face challenges this season but there’s something brewing on the blue half of Merseyside.
Apart from Gray being a rapid, skilful, exciting young Englishman, he has even more value for Everton. The Brummie could step up and provide the goals during Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s injury absence.
Rafa Benitez has options of playing Gray in several different positions due to his skill set
The centre-forward, who was the only Blues man to hit double figures in the Premier League last term, faces several weeks on the sidelines with a broken toe and quad injuries.
Gray has been deployed as a left-winger in three games this season but impressed in a second-striker role against Southampton, and he has experience playing as a centre-forward at age-group and senior level.
The Birmingham academy graduate’s pace is a constant threat but his hold-up in the construction of Townsend’s screamer showed another skill in his arsenal. He’s been quick-thinking and clinical in blue.
With Benitez relying on him, it’s Gray’s time to shine.
Speaking in a press conference back in February, before his strong start at Leverkusen faded into more frustration, Gray revealed a senior England call-up was his dream.
‘I will get that run of games and I will improve as a player. When you’re doing it on a consistent level that’s where you start pushing for England call-ups, and that’s my top goal,’ the winger said.
Gray was a key player for England under-21s across many years and now wants a senior cap
England boss Gareth Southgate will be keeping a watchful eye over Gray’s progress at Everton
‘I’ve been in and around it over the last few years, you could say I’ve had a quiet 18 months but I’m confident I will get to the level I can.’
Gray has a knack for starting fast. He fired on debut at Bayer Leverkusen, is free-scoring at Everton and even impressed in his first match for England under-21’s.
Gareth Southgate handed the starlet his first call-up to the under-21s squad in 2016. Gray assisted in the clash with Switzerland and earned high praise from the man who stoked Three Lions-fever all summer: ‘It was a super debut.
‘He was a threat all night and I think the work he did at the goal was exceptional but he also put a real shift in for the team and did his work off the ball.’
Southgate won’t have forgotten Gray, but his sensational return to English shores will have him thinking about that call-up for Everton’s new No 11.
Demarai Gray did have a quiet 18 months, but the next 18 could be deafening.
Gray finally looks to be on the cusp of breaking through after returning to the English league