“We have to have him around.” That was the unequivocal summary reached by Birmingham City manager Lee Clark on discussing the future of his young prodigy, Demarai (Dim-ah-ree) Gray, or, as he is affectionately known, Dimmy.
“He showed on Saturday what a fantastic young talent he is!” enthused Clark, referring to the substitute appearance Gray made towards the end of a clash with Leeds United. Clark’s spirited verdict is understandable: Gray is, simply put, gifted.
Gray came on for Stoke City reject Brek Shea towards the end of the stalemate at St Andrews, and, as Sky Sports put it, “led Leeds a merry dance.” He was impressive, stirring the tiring Birmingham players (and fans) with an immeasurable exuberance and youthful fearlessness.
What makes him so popular? Gray is refreshingly positive. A trait that shines during his frequent substitute appearances; Gray exploits the weary muscles and minds of opponents with his thrillingly direct style. In fact, in the minutes he was afforded during the Leeds United encounter, Gray almost won a penalty – he slalomed past a couple of bewildered defenders before taking an unconvincing dive under challenge from Bellusci.
Yes, but who is he? Local lad come good: Gray is an 18-year-old Birmingham-born winger. He first played competitively sporting the purple of Cadbury Athletic, a club whose ground is shadowed by the renowned Bourneville factory and a team I played many times during my Sunday League career. Interestingly, it is the same club that England and Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge first played for (there must be something in the chocolate).
He was picked up by Blues scouts at just ten years of age and has represented the club ever since, making a handful of appearances for the first team, albeit mostly from the bench. At just 17, Gray signed a dream two and a half year professional deal with the Midlands club, keeping him in his hometown until the summer of 2016 and has since gone on the earn an England under 19s call up, making his debut for Noel Blake’s side in a 4-0 win over Belgium.
His style is difficult to describe: somewhere between Raheem Sterling and Sammy Ameobi. He has the flair and tenacity of Sterling, but the physical attributes of the Newcastle winger. Dimmy is relatively tall for a winger at five foot ten inches, with a wiry complexion and long limbs; yet, when he dribbles he seems shrinks into a more diminutive character, darting about with an innate agility and a dangerous unpredictability.
Alas, there are major flaws in Gray’s game, the most obvious being his incapacity to retain the ball. Frankly, Gray wastes possession. Personally, I relish the sight of plucky young wingers hurtling towards defenders and running down cul-de-sacs; it may not be clever, but it is these daring, unafraid players that excite.
However, Gray’s glaring ineptitude in retaining possession is unavoidable. More than a quarter of his passes don’t find a teammate and he is dispossessed approximately five times a game: inefficient. This incompetence is exacerbated by his goal-scoring struggles. “I don’t score enough goals” conceded the teen in a recent interview; Gray has scored just two goals in 15 appearances for the Blues.
Nonetheless, Dimmy’s imperfections are not irreversible, nor do they hinder his raw talent. Versatile, Gray can be effective from the right wing and through the middle, though he is most scintillating on the left wing, cutting onto his right foot. The stats back it up: Dimmy has an average rating of 7.28 on the left side of a front three, a formation that facilitates Gray’s natural creativity and attacking ambition, and a goal scoring return of one goal in two starts this term.
Further exploration into the statistical depths of Gray’s game expose his inextinguishable determination (he makes more tackles per start than defender Paul Caddis), his peerless ability to beat his man (he completes four dribbles per start) and his remarkable competence with both feet.
Moreover, Gray has exhibited all the mental qualities necessary to reach the apex of domestic football. Gray, according to former teammate Chris Burke, has a remarkable willingness to learn and possesses the increasingly rare ability amongst young players to “get his head down and listen”. Such hunger and humility is paramount if Gray is to fulfil his potential.
Well, who’s interested?
The most intense attention has come from Merseyside, with Liverpool reported to have agreed a deal for Gray a head of the winter window. The deal, according to the Birmingham Mail, includes an option to match any offer the club receives for Gray. Alas, this deal may be mere rumours as very little has emerged on the matter since and, when one considers the array of young attacking talent Liverpool have in their youth setup, it seems unlikely that Dimmy will be heading to Liverpool.
Other curious clubs include Newcastle United, who, according to The Mag, have struck a deal in principle to purchase Gray and loan him back to the Championship outfit, as they did this summer on acquiring Nottingham Forest duo Jamaal Lascelles and Karl Darlow. However, unless Newcastle change their manager (at the time of writing, Alan Pardew is still at the helm), a transfer policy of recruiting youth seems unlikely: Pardew cannot afford to wait for his players to blossom.
More probing around Gray’s future indicates that Manchester United and Crystal Palace are interested in the youngster. The United report may simply stem from the fact that he scored a wonderful goal against them in pre-season; whereas the Palace links have some genuine basis. In the fallout from Pulis’ shock departure just days before the start of the season, Palace were forced to act rapidly in the transfer market; such activity included a deadline day bid to prise Demarai Gray from Birmingham City.
The £500,000 bid was unsuccessful, due to, in part, the staunch attitude of manager Lee Clark, who fervently opposed Gray’s departure. “How important is it that we fend off these clubs?” Clark repeated after a journalist posed the question, “imperative.”
Clark is very reluctant to see young talent depart, a view I share with the Geordie gaffer. I hope Gray isn’t enticed by the glamour and glory of England’s top flight too soon. I hope he refines his game in the less competitive, less ruthless world of the Championship, where managers are not shown the door for back-to-back losses.
Gray, who stated that Nathan Redmond had made the biggest impression on his career, may be victim of the same fate as his past teammate. He can be a much better player than Redmond, but his potential may be suffocated if he departs for Premier League football too soon, just as Redmond’s was.
Gray’s performances have seen him named Man of the Match against Norwich City last Saturday, awarded the Academy Player of the Year in 2014 and his magnificent solo effort for Birmingham in a pre-season game at Carrington has notched almost 40,000 views on YouTube. Accolades to be proud of, no doubt.
Yet, more significantly, Gray has won the manager’s favour, regularly featuring in Clark’s match day squads since the season began. He invigorates the Birmingham fans, who have been watching drab football for almost a decade now and haven’t had a talent to celebrate since Zigic left!
Gray has all the assets, both technically and psychologically, to reach the summit of domestic and international football. His flaws are evident but not irreparable, his skill is startling and his undaunted zeal is a breath of fresh air. Should Dimmy get the opportunity to hone his talents in the nurturing environment of the Championship, we can expect big things from the Brummie winger.