Demarai Gray: I've found my purpose after overcoming dark period

04/11/2022 27comments  |  Jump to last

Demarai Gray has opened up about the challenges and demons that derailed a hugely promising career following Leicester’s improbable title triumph six years ago before he was given a route back from a difficult spell at Bayer Levekusen to the Premier League with Everton last year.

In an in-depth interview with David Ornstein for The Athletic, Gray describes how, mentally, he descended to a dark place where he admits he questioned his purpose in life during the worst of the Covid-19 lockdown while he was in Germany.

The winger had always lived in Birmingham, even while playing for the Foxes, the club who beat Everton, among other clubs, to his signature during the January 2016 transfer window, but he opted for a fresh start in the Bundesliga after falling out of favour once Brendan Rodgers had replaced Claude Puel as Leicester boss in 2019.

He transferred to Leverkusen during the depths of the pandemic in early 2021 but whereas the novelty of lockdown in England offered him the chance to self-reflect and analyse, he found the isolation of Germany’s strict protocols and the lack of access to his family and young son difficult to bear.

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“[It’s] the lowest I’ve felt,” he admits. “I’m not involved or going back to a partner — it’s just me. I’m in a hotel. [The Covid regulations] were very strict in Germany. The borders were closed, so I couldn’t pop home if we had days off and family couldn’t fly over. I didn’t see my son for the whole time I was there.

“I’m a family man; I love being around family and close to my friends. It’s a different country and culture. It was tough and it was lonely. Being quite quiet, I probably wouldn’t talk as much to people or let them know how I was feeling. I’d just be by myself and think, ‘Wow, what’s going on? What am I doing here?’.

“Mental health is a real thing and men are probably more reluctant to speak out — especially in football. We’re looked at as the providers, the ones to steer the ship. Sometimes the responsibility of that can be difficult. It’s something I’ve dealt with for a long time and if I look back now it’s something I’d say affected my football as well, probably for two seasons.”

It wasn’t only in Germany that Gray struggled with his mental health. He describes how he would suffer breakdowns when he wasn’t involved at Leicester, tomorrow's visitors to Goodison Park in the late-afternoon kick-off.

“You hit the point where inside you feel like you’ve got nothing left mentally,” he explains. “Going to training, getting through sessions like I’m not even there. I’m there, obviously, but it’s like I’m not present. My mind is elsewhere.

“It’s silly to think but I’d say to my mum, ‘I don’t know if I want to play football anymore’. [W]hen I’m doing [everything right] but not getting opportunities and this is going on for a couple of years, you don’t feel like you’re ever going to get a chance, so what’s the point? Because, realistically, it could happen again (elsewhere). I could come across another manager who doesn’t fancy me.

“That’s when I fell out of love with football for a bit,” he says before admitting that he would seek fill the void of not being regularly involved in the Leicester squad by going out “more than I should” with friends.

“That’s why it’s important to have good people around you — because it’s so in your face, social media, everyone wants to look like this and act like that. In reality, that side of life is fake, it’s not authentic. What good do you get out of it? I had to learn that. I only realised in the last few years I don’t need that to give me joy.”

An offer from Everton and then-manager Rafael Benitez gave Gray a quick route back to England just six months after he had signed for Leverkusen on an 18-month deal. He says he is grateful for the Spaniard for having faith in him.

“I enjoyed my time with him,” Gray says of Benitez, who lasted less than eight months at Goodison Park before being sacked in mid-January this year. “I played some of my best football under him. He gave me a sense of freedom and made me feel a valuable member of the squad. That was important for someone like me and the way I am as a player.”

The arrival of Frank Lampard, whom Gray credits with having “a lot of balls” for taking over the crisis-wracked Blues when he did, saw Everton eventually stave off relegation following what “Dimi” describes as a “beautiful struggle” but he reveals that it wasn’t always a unified effort.

“We fought with each other a lot towards the end of the season,” he admits. “It never got to the physical point. People would step in before that. Just vocals and getting at one another.

“You need that. It’s important. I always laugh after. Seamus is the peacemaker — lovely guy but he’ll tell you how it is. Dom had one. You don’t mess with Yerry.

“I remember one time Yerry had a little pop at Anthony. You see how Anthony plays — he’s fiery, so he’ll give it back and I had to separate it on the pitch. But we laugh about it later.”

Gray also reveals that it wasn’t a given that he would remain at Goodison beyond this past summer but a “heart-to-heart” with coach Joe Edwards and the arrival of a host of new recruits upgraded the squad and added some strong, positive characters to the dressing room which transformed the outlook for this season.

Now Demarai says that, “this is the best I’ve felt in my career. I’m proud of myself, of how I’ve grown as a person and how I’ve come out of situations. For the first time in a long time, I’m genuinely happy and back feeling myself, playing like myself. The last few years have been up and down but I don’t regret anything and wouldn’t change it.

“I’m a father, a son, a big brother. And I now know my purpose. Those people are my purposes. They are why I do what I do.”

Quotes sourced from The Athletic [£]

Reader Comments (27)

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Danny Broderick
1 Posted 04/11/2022 at 22:24:22
Good read.
Mike Gaynes
2 Posted 04/11/2022 at 23:36:43
Fascinating stuff. He's a brave guy.
Derek Knox
3 Posted 05/11/2022 at 01:55:23
Mike G, he'll be an even better, or braver guy if he scores against his old club later.

I would be tempted to start with more or less the same team as last week but make early changes if it isn't going to plan.

Mike Gaynes
4 Posted 05/11/2022 at 04:50:20
I have a hunch he will, DK. Gray always seems to score just when he's having a tough time, like he has been recently.
Darryl Ritchie
5 Posted 05/11/2022 at 04:52:13
Goes to show it's not all about the paycheque.
Danny O’Neill
6 Posted 05/11/2022 at 07:50:43
Good read.

A lot of people, not necessarily on here, just football fans in general, point to the money these players are on and they should just get on with it as they're privileged. That's just the market rate, whether we agree with it or not. And we contribute to funding it through our attendance at matches, memberships and various TV subscriptions.

They've worked since childhood for that privilege and sacrificed a normal life and the simple things we take for granted, as I've said on a few occasions. I don't think we always acknowledge that.

Linked to this, I've often wondered over the years if their lifestyle contributes to some of the addictions we've seen in the game. Especially with the advent of online gambling and betting applications. Young people with a lot of money and a lot of time on their hands that they can't do a lot with to occupy themselves. I would imagine a lot of them suffer from sheer boredom. I guess in Demarai's situation the pandemic contributed even more as it did to many millions.

Anyway, that's just my thoughts. Good on him for an honest interview. It's always good to speak about problems rather than bottle them up.

As a footballer, I like Demarai. He's a threat and with his pace, I would imagine a worry for any full-back. He's also got good feet if you watch him closely. Very honest and hard working. I wish he'd get his head up more often and look for the pass and not try to win it on his own, but then again, what options have been in front of late? But that's a part of his game he could improve.

Demarai Gray Ole.

Peter Carpenter
7 Posted 05/11/2022 at 08:03:06
Interesting read. Good to hear that someone has something positive to say about Rafa.

And the fighting! Somehow not a surprise. Even 'Dom had one' – risking his modelling career there.

Seamus will have a great book to write when he packs up, blowing the lid on all that chaos. He's got the title already, '60 Grand: Playing Football the Everton Way' by Seamus Coleman. (Can I copyright that?)

Lee Courtliff
8 Posted 05/11/2022 at 08:11:36
Good read.

Fans, in general, just don't seem to understand that the rich and famous footballers are still just human beings... and we all have our personal problems to deal with. Money doesn't solve everything.

I've always liked Dimi and, despite his obvious limitations, I think he's been a really good signing for us. Especially when you consider he only cost £1.7M – basically a free transfer in today's market.

He's the type who will infuriate you but also entertain you.

Jeff Armstrong
9 Posted 05/11/2022 at 08:19:24
Good read that, most times we don't know what's going on in players lives and yet we all have an opinion on them, they're as human as the rest of us including all the frailties, we sometimes need to give them a break.

The criticism of the likes of Calvert-Lewin has been brutal at times but those same people will be celebrating like the rest of us when he comes good.

I think Gray has done okay lately, his first instinct is to move the ball forward and he put the cross of the game in last week against Fulham; a less rusty Dom will bury that tonight.

Dave Cashen
10 Posted 05/11/2022 at 08:44:08
I always suspected Gordon was a sandwich short.

Mina may not be prepared to play through pain, but you only have to look at him to know he is more than capable of inflicting it.

I shouldn't be delighted to hear that our players were fighting among themselves during an extremely tense situation. But I am.

Gray for me is the most exciting player we have, but there is a touch of the Alex Young about him. I don't mean he is as talented as the Golden one, but sometimes he is inexplicably poor. This article goes some way to explaining why.

I bet the bookies will be busy today with lots of Blues lining up to back him to score against his old club. After reading this, I'll be in that queue…

Danny Baily
11 Posted 05/11/2022 at 08:49:34
Interesting comments about the state of the dressing room last season. I think first Digne and then Richarlison going has allowed for a reset. They were big characters and were somewhat jaded by what had gone on.
Danny O’Neill
12 Posted 05/11/2022 at 08:54:42
I forgot to comment on that, Dave. Like a lot of things, it's a balance. It's not necessarily an unhealthy thing for players to challenge each other and air frustration.

Get it out there and move on rather than sit there placidly thinking "We done okay" or worse, individuals thinking it wasn't their fault. Okay, we don't want it to get to gumshield and gloves stage, but it is sometimes a good thing to criticise. We all do it as mates and family when it's needed.

You see glimpses of it from Reid and Ratcliffe on Howard's Way. I'm sure more went on behind the scenes.

Anyway, good luck with that bet. I'll be joining you.

Eddie Dunn
13 Posted 05/11/2022 at 09:01:19
Had a long chat yesterday unexpectedly meeting someone involved directly with the club behind the scenes, and heard some interesting views, and I can counter Gray's view of Rafa: I was told that "everybody hated the fat Spanish waiter".

I also learned that the players were pissed-off to hear that they are to travel to Australia, on Business Class and not on private jet. Poor little things!

And a few other nuggets too!

Steve Shave
14 Posted 05/11/2022 at 09:04:23
Interesting read, particularly blowing the lid off the inner fighting last season, not sure how Frank and the team would view those remarks. Surely there is a code about keeping it behind closed doors? Touch of the old verbal diarrhoea there, methinks.

However, I applaud footballers coming out and talking about these issues relating to mental health. We tend to see them differently because of the privilege and the worship. But, as Danny eloquently points out above, they are just human beings, why can't they have mental health problems like the rest of the world?

As a psychotherapist, it really gets my goat the way some fans on here and in general just dismiss that; it's so invalidating. Here is the truth, there is physical health and there is mental health, we all have both, they just fluctuate and are both intrinsically linked. Who the hell are we to tell someone (just because they are good at football) that they have to get on with it because they play for our team?

I don't know Demarai's story but many of these lads grew up in tough environments and conditions. Football was their only escape, why would that mean they didn't come home to violence or neglect?

Good on ya, fella, now back the winner today or else I'll be back to calling you a useless shitbag! :)

Colin Glassar
15 Posted 05/11/2022 at 09:38:46
I've always said Gray is an incredibly frustrating player. He has bags of skill, has two good feet, is lightning quick and has a trick or two under his sleeve… but he does tend to overdo it.

He always wants to do one extra step over, or beat the same man twice, but his biggest fault is not looking up to deliver a pass. If he sorts this out, we will have a brilliant player on our hands.

Brian Harrison
16 Posted 05/11/2022 at 10:02:44
I remember Brendan Rodgers saying that Demarai Gray is a very talented footballer when he is focussed, and it seems reading what Gray has said, seems he wasn't always focussed.

I also agree that he played his best football under Benitez, and as Gray said, he had more of a free role under Benitez. I personally think he is wasted playing out wide where he can be closely marked; I would much prefer to see him in the Number 10 role.

I think our goal against Palace showed why he should play in the 10 role: after we passed the ball out of defence, Iwobi found Gray who was a lot more central, he turned inside, wrong-footed their defence, and laid the ball off to Onana, who played in Mykolenko, whose shot was turned in by Gordon.

Joe McMahon
17 Posted 05/11/2022 at 10:33:56

As one of the midfielders needs to come off the bench, IMO it should be Gordon. You mentioned Benitez and it looks like he was right (certainly at the moment) that Gordon runs out out steam for a full game. I also think that Gray is wasted out wide.

Alan J Thompson
18 Posted 05/11/2022 at 10:43:58
While I have sympathy for him, why did he not take his family to Germany? Did his agent not advise him of the restrictions? Was it just a matter of timing or did he not ask? Or have I missed something?

Having moved great distances for work several times myself, far further than UK to Germany, I always asked about housing, schools, travel and removal costs and who met what, admittedly not during a pandemic, but either he or his agent should have been asking.

Christy Ring
19 Posted 05/11/2022 at 10:45:45
A very good honest assessment of being a footballer. Most players join a club from an early age, it can be hard mentally and not all glamour, and can be a lonely life to try and make it to the top. As he said, players had to let off steam last season, the pressure for the last 6/7 games was massive.

I like Gray and he deserves his place in the first 11, he's skilful and drives forward at every opportunity, and is a nightmare for fullbacks. Love to see him doing well today against his old club.

Colin Metcalfe
20 Posted 05/11/2022 at 11:01:19
Good read, I enjoyed that. Also nice to get some kind of insight as to what's going on behind the scenes.

I remember myself going through a hard time with my mental health as a young man and it was really tough to open up to anyone because it was just not the done thing and you have to somehow get through on your own and so its refreshing nowadays that men are openly talking about mental health.

As for all that social media bollocks, it's an ego trip and nothing more and it's good to see he has seen right through it. Family and good friends are what these young players need around them.

Stu Darlington
21 Posted 05/11/2022 at 11:36:30
Fair summing up of the lad's qualities, Colin, pretty much echoes my view of him.

It's up to the coaches and senior players to have a word with him now so we can get the best out of him. Get him focused and playing in the right position and we'd have one hell of a player.

Danny O’Neill
22 Posted 05/11/2022 at 11:38:01
I'm supposing it was a combinations of things, Alan @18. Personal decision combined with maybe not being able to because of Covid? I think he joined Leverkusen in 2021.

On the personal choice thing, I too spent a lot of time moving around. Sometimes the family came with me but for a total of 10 years (not all at once), they stayed put and I went, commuting home at weekends and whenever else I could.

We decided in 2004 that the family would settle given the amount of time I would spend away and that was the case until I left in 2016. It made more sense for me to give them stability in terms of house and schools.

I got fed up of uprooting my son every 2 to 3 years. Changing schools and friends, my wife having to give up and then find new employment in a different area. Either way, not an easy decision to make, but we opted for stability for the family.

I went off and done my thing, which in a way protected them because had I uprooted them for the umpteenth time and taken them to another unfamiliar area, they wouldn't have seen much of me anyway.

It's all down to personal circumstances. Unlike when I lived in Germany in British communities with British schools, I would imagine taking his wife and son to Germany with a foreign language they may not speak, would have seriously uprooted them and been a challenge in a different kind of way.

Tony Everan
23 Posted 05/11/2022 at 14:30:47
A refreshingly honest interview with Demarai, he has been a positive for the club since his arrival, and we’ve been good for him. It’s fantastic he is happy and back together with his family, where he should be.

He’s a player who is full of talent, and plays more maturely now, a bit more composed on the ball. I still feel like there is more to come from him end product wise. Same goes for Gordon, the talent is there, but it’s the end product that has to be worked on and improved. It also must be consistently good and managers don’t have an awful lot of time to wait patiently for it.

Demarai will thrive on the stability Everton can give him but ultimately it’s down to him to produce the goods to make sure he stays as a first choice starter.

David Midgley
24 Posted 06/11/2022 at 08:29:52
Demarai Gray, Olé.

Remember when you're down and feeling low when your wheel turns, whichever way, you start to move back up.

John Raftery
25 Posted 06/11/2022 at 18:56:32
I agree that Gray would be more effective in a central role further up the pitch and close to the main striker. Receiving the ball wide in deep positions with half the opposition in front of him will never make the best use of his talents. As he is a tidy finisher we need to give him more opportunities to score.
Tony Abrahams
26 Posted 06/11/2022 at 19:52:45
That’s a good point Brian H, because I think both Gordon and Gray, would both be better suited to that position. Through the darkness, I can see a team, but some things have got to change quickly, especially our present formation, which only seems to suit the two central defenders.
Danny O’Neill
27 Posted 07/11/2022 at 11:43:10
Not for the first time, the number 10 position is something I think Gordon could be moulded into. Never thought about Gray in there. Interesting.

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