In Profile: Andre Gray
By Kevin Affleck
Andre Gray's phone hasn't stopped buzzing with messages asking about tickets for the game at Molineux. It's the hottest ticket in town.
Everybody close to him wants to be there on the day the local lad plays Premier League football at the ground of his hometown club.
Gray has played twice there before – two Championship games, a 2-1 defeat with Brentford in 2014 and a goalless draw with Burnley in 2015 – but this will be different, this will be the time when he runs out having made it to the top-flight of English football.
He has, it has to be said, taken the circuitous route and a lot of water – and the odd drop of blood – has flowed under the bridge, but Gray has done it, he's made it back to the club who decided he wasn't good enough at the age of 13.
“It's something I never thought could happen,” said Gray. “I've played there before, but it's probably that little bit more special now it's the Premier League. It's always massive to go there.”
He had been at Wolves for four years as a schoolboy when he was let go. It came as a crushing blow.
“I don't think they wanted to tell me to my face,” said Gray. “They ended up giving my mum or cousin a letter, I think. That wasn't the best way to go about it. It was hard to deal with.”
The rejection was particularly tough to swallow as Gray had just lost his grandfather. Terry had doubled up as a father because Gray's own dad had walked out on the family when he was much younger. It's the one thing off limits in this wide-ranging interview. Gray got the news his grandad had passed away when he was going to get his haircut with his mum.
“Mum got a phone call and she broke down,” said Gray. “I knew something bad had happened. It was horrible, I didn't know how to deal with it. My mind would stray and I probably bottled it up a bit, but that was my way to survive.”
Gray used to travel up to Stoke every weekend to stay with his grandparents and it was his grandad who used to take him to football training. “It all stemmed from him,” said Gray.
The death of his grandfather left a vacuum.
“As you grow up you learn to be a man yourself, but there are situations in life where every man needs a father figure to talk to and listen to that wisdom,” Gray said. “I never had it so I just had to learn my own way. Mistakes have been made, but they have all come with lessons.”
The one constant has been his mother Joanna.
“She has been massive for me,” said Gray. “It's hard to put into words what she did for me. I genuinely wouldn't be here if it wasn't for her. She pushed me, took me everywhere when I was too young to go by myself. It would have been easy for her not to take me or say she can't afford it, but she did what she had to do for me. She worked at a train station at one point and worked so she could pay for me to go where I needed to go.”
Gray repaid her with interest once he landed his first big contract, although this writer really had to drag out of him the nature of his gesture.
“I did that [bought her a house] with my first bit of money,” he said. “It's the only thing I ever wanted to do. it's the best feeling I've ever had.”
He gave her the keys on Mother's Day in 2015.
“I just wanted to make sure she doesn't have to worry anymore and think about paying the bills. There was no better feeling. I've always wanted to pay her back and I always will. The first thing I said I'd always do [if I made it] was to make sure mum and my little brother are in a good situation. If all my money disappears, at least I know they are fine and that they don't have to worry. My mum would give her last pound to me and my little brother.”
Gray's little brother is eight-year-old Coady. He's not had it easy either as his dad died when he was young.
“He looks up to me and it's important I make sure he doesn't make the same mistakes I did,” said Gray. “I got lucky. If he follows my footsteps, in this day and age, he might not be so lucky. I've got to make sure I look after him and that he's a good kid. I've got to be there for him.”
Coady lives in the Midlands with Joanna and not that far from where trouble is easy to come by. Gray knows this only too well. Shootings and stabbings became “normal” for the then teenage Gray, an everyday occurrence. “It was a part of how things were,” he said.
Gray was no innocent party.
“I got away with a lot of stuff,” he said. “I've been arrested a few times so I was lucky and I count my blessings. Situations were happening on a day-to-day basis, whether it be with other people or the police. It wasn't the best situation to be in, but I didn't know any different and it was just part and parcel of what was going on. I've a few regrets for some of the things I've done, but I got lucky in terms of coming out the right side of things.”
While some of his friends ended up in prison or, worse still, dead, Gray emerged unscathed from the gang culture. Well, almost. He has a scar running from his left ear to near his top lip. It is about four inches and was the result of being stabbed on a night out in Wolverhampton in 2011. It took more than 15 stitches to knit his face back together.
“It was just open, cut clean through," said Gray. “I was lucky that the facial surgeon was just leaving as I got to the hospital. He came and stitched me. He did it perfectly. If a normal nurse had done it, it could have been a lot worse. I was lucky as 10 minutes later, he's not there and then the scar affects me for the rest of my life. It's healed well.”
So has the memory of that fateful night. Gray is just thankful he wasn't stabbed in the eye or in the neck.
“Me and my friend didn't even plan to go to this place – we just ended there because we weren't dressed right for another place,” he said. “I was doing well at the time [at Hinckley] and I was thinking, ‘I don't need to be putting myself in these type of situations’. It could have been avoided.”
The brushes with guns, crime and the gang culture meant Gray had plenty in common with Richarlison. The Brazilian grew up the hard way on the unforgiving streets of Vila Rúbia and had a gun pointed at him.
“He had it 10 times worse than me,” said Gray. “I respected where he was from and the attitude he had. We got on really well, even though we could hardly speak to each other. It was sign language most of the time. But we just got an energy from each other. He is just a good kid. He just came here to live his dream and help his family. I'm so happy for him to get his move to Everton because it's life-changing for him. It couldn't happen to anyone better. I still message him and the last time I spoke to him he wanted a dog.”
Gray, meanwhile, is weighing up whether to add to the impressive array of artwork adorning his body. He has the images of 10 pictures and slogans on his back, including Bob Marley, Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela. Most are a nod to the African-American civil rights movement. He also has the phrase ‘Still I Rise’ inked from his chest towards his left shoulder. All are the handiwork of a female tattooist who is now picking up plenty of work from the Newcastle team.
“I'm in two minds whether to do my whole stomach or the rest of my leg,” said Gray. “I'm going to take my time with them.”
Gray may have all the trappings of a Premier League footballer – the tattoos, the watch, the clothes, the Bentley – but there is a real depth to him, one you wouldn't necessarily give him credit for. While some of his teammates are playing on the PlayStation or watching Netflix at the team hotel, Gray is using every available opportunity to enhance his knowledge.
“It started when I watched a programme called Roots on BBC,” he said. “I knew a lot of the basic stuff [about American slavery] but I wanted to know more. I just dug deeper.
“I've really tried to use the last six months to study a bit more and understand things that you don't get taught in school, like finance. I'd rather understand things I'm investing in than let somebody else do it. It keeps my mind busy. People laugh when they see me reading things. People don't expect it, but when I read it expands my mind into thinking differently. There is more to life than we realise and more going on in the world. I want to understand more of what's going on and not just be blind to things.”
Gray is also clued up on the celebrity culture. It would be easy for the 27-year-old to get carried away with himself, playing Premier League football one minute and the next walking down the red carpet at The BRIT Awards with his girlfriend Leigh-Anne Pinnock, the Little Mix star. He is mixing in some pretty big circles, but you'll find very little of this on his social media accounts and no chance of him name-dropping.
“It doesn't bother me,” he said. “It's part of my missus' job and I accept that and I support her, but it's like whatever with me. I don't want to get caught up in it. I like to keep myself to myself and I'm in it for the love of the game – not the fame.”
Gray did admit to getting star struck once, though.
“It was only once when I was in America when I saw a rapper [Meek Mill], who is one of my favourites. He was on the table next to me in a club.”
Did he ask for a picture or an autograph?
“No way, nothing like that. Having been to The BRITs and being with the missus and the [Little Mix] girls, you just realise all these people are just normal and they want to be treated normally, too.”
Gray plucked up the courage, though, to ask for the shirts of Sergio Agüero, Mesut Özil and Jamie Vardy, but his two big pals in the game are from the second tier of the English game, his former Brentford teammates Moses Odubajo and Nico Yennaris.
They have seen their mate land a £9 million move to Burnley and then a club-record one to Watford. Gray has taken it all in his stride and not even batted an eyelid at any issues over the fact he used to play for Luton.
“If I signed from Luton to Watford, it might be a bit different, but I played for two clubs in between. I did a lot for Luton, got them promoted and was top-scorer. Time moves on.”
Doesn’t it just. Gray is well over the early rejection by Wolves, but it will still be extra sweet, though, if he rattles one in at Molineux next Saturday.