Demarai Gray is the senior man in Aidy Boothroyd’s England squad at the European U21 Championships this summer, but will he deliver? Adam Bate speaks to those who have worked with the Leicester winger to find out more about his vast potential and what he needs to do to realise it…
You might have seen the footage of Demarai Gray in training with England before the forthcoming European U21 Championships. The first clip shows him pulling off an outrageous reverse nutmeg on his team-mate. Just when you are thinking that the feat owes something to luck, a second clip shows him repeating the trick in the same session.
It is a reminder of Gray’s prodigious skillset and a hint of what the Leicester winger is capable of producing this summer. The problem as far as Foxes fans are concerned is that hints are all they have had since he joined from Birmingham midway through their title-winning campaign. Now, 132 appearances later, it’s time to deliver on the promise.
Speak to the 22-year-old talent and he would likely point to a lack of opportunity stifling his development. It was not until Claude Puel’s appointment that Gray was granted four Premier League starts in a row. It was not until Brendan Rodgers arrived in the spring that he was given the chance to start six consecutive top-flight matches for Leicester.
But it is telling that the four appearances under Puel were the Frenchman’s first four games and the six starts under Rodgers came in the current manager’s first half a dozen selections. Both coaches dropped Gray to the bench after that. Their experience tallies with that of Craig Shakespeare, who was assistant manager when Gray arrived before taking the job.
“He got very frustrated by the lack of game time,” Shakespeare tells Sky Sports. “I actually remember sitting down with Demarai when I first took over and then again in pre-season when I eventually took over permanently. I told him that he needed more game time and I needed to give him more game time. But I needed to see that consistency in his play.”
It was not that Shakespeare failed to recognise the talent. “You can see Demarai’s ability to go past people, his change of pace and his change of direction,” he adds. “He has such electric pace. You need that. You need the solid defenders and the midfielders, you need the wingers who can work up and down and fill in areas. But Demarai can go past people.”
That is the reason why Leicester were, in the words of Shakespeare, “fighting off bids from Tottenham and Bournemouth” for Gray in the summer of 2017. “We knew that we needed to keep him because he has very much got the potential to have a really good career,” he explains. But two years on from that interest and potential is still all that it is.
Of course, the fact that Gray is still eligible for Aidy Boothroyd’s England U21 squad, albeit as the oldest player, is a reminder that time is on his side. It is easy to judge him on the basis that he has been around for a while, but Gray remains only 22. He is still developing and the feeling from those that have followed his progress is that patience is required.
Gray’s early years
Kristjaan Speakman, Birmingham’s academy manager, recognises this accusation that while Gray has talent he struggles to show it on the pitch. That’s what they said about him in his early teenage years. It required some trust to believe that the player could take the next step – and an understanding that his physical development would transform his potency.
“I don’t think you could say Demarai was a stand-out talent because straight away from a physical point of view, his maturation was a little behind the other boys,” Speakman tells Sky Sports. “You would have had him down as high potential at 14 but someone standing by the pitch watching a one-off game would not necessarily have picked him out.
“You could have watched games back then and felt he did not really have the pace or power to get away from anybody. He had nice touches and he was quite clever. If you had taken him off the pitch and watched him doing tricks you would have said he was fantastic but people could have easily dismissed him and said that in a game he could not do it.
“But one of the things about our programme is that we try to find out more about the kids and Demarai is a great example of that. We unpicked his family background and understood that he was going to be a late bloomer. You can see it even in his senior career. If you look at him when he left us compared to where he is now, he is a different physical specimen.”
What’s next for Gray?
Perhaps there is still more to add in terms of physicality but you sense that Gray is now at a crossroads in his career. Rodgers has big ambitions and Leicester are certain to be active in the market this summer. Gray has work to do to persuade the manager that he should be central to his plans. He needs to nail down a role in the team. But what exactly is that role?
- Get a Sky Sports Day Pass for one-off payment of £8.99
“When Demarai plays wide his end product needs work in terms of his crossing,” says Shakespeare. “But when he plays more centrally as a No 10 he has the potential to score a lot of goals from that position because his shooting is very good, especially with his right foot. If he goes past people when playing centrally, he is then right on top of goal.