LONDON (Reuters) - Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy has long been seen as the rags-to-riches success story, going from non-league to the Premier League, but Watford’s Andre Gray has followed a similar path in a shorter time despite making mistakes along the way.
After being released by local side Wolverhampton Wanderers and then Shrewsbury Town, striker Gray signed for non-league Hinckley United, and initially struggled to get among the goals.
Off the pitch, Gray got in with the wrong crowd, becoming involved in Wolverhampton’s gang culture, during which time he got a nasty scar on his cheek after an incident in late 2011.
Then with one transfer Gray’s life changed. After impressing against Luton Town for Hinckley, he earned a move to the then-Conference Premier club in 2012, and the rest is history.
“The Luton move was a chance for me to move away from everything in my home town, live on my own and get back into playing full-time football again,” Gray told Reuters.
“I would have rather signed for Luton over Wolves at the time — I needed to get away from everything and not be around certain stuff.
“We played Luton in the FA Trophy and I did alright against them. A month later it all came about and I ended up going there and hitting the ground running. I have never looked back since then.”
Gray’s goals for Luton — 47 in 88 league games after a short spell on loan there — attracted plenty of suitors, with Championship club Brentford securing his services in 2014.
The step up did not phase him as he scored 18 goals in 47 league appearances, attracting the attention of Burnley who broke their transfer record to sign Gray for 9 million pounds ($12.39 million) the following year.
Burnley won promotion to the Premier League in Gray’s first season there, and the journey to the top was complete.
However, Gray’s past reared its ugly head once more in 2016, when homophobic tweets he sent in 2012 were discovered, leading to an FA suspension.
“I already had my learning curve long before the tweets came out,” Gray added. “It was difficult to try to explain myself, and explain how you have changed.
“If it was really recent then it would have bothered me more, but it didn’t affect me too much as I knew how far I’d come and what kind of person I’d become.”
Burnley manager Sean Dyche stuck by Gray throughout the episode, and that faith was rewarded as the forward continued to score in the Premier League, with nine goals last season.
“I am surprised he (Dyche) is still there,” Gray said. “Most managers in his position would be at a bigger club.
“I think he is building something fantastic. He is a great manager, and is great for all the players.
“He did a lot for me. In our promotion season, he was a massive factor in my goalscoring. Then he pushed me to kick on in the Premier League.
“He has that authority about him — you just sit and listen. When the manager comes to speak to you, even if you don’t agree, the fact he gives you a reason for something you are more likely to go do it.”
The next step for Gray was another club-record move, this time to Watford for a reported fee of 18 million pounds before the start of this season.
Things have not gone as swimmingly, with Gray in and out of the team having netted just four league goals this term, but the substantial fee Watford paid does not hang heavy.
“I scored in each of the last two games I started, so to not start a game since is disappointing,” Gray added.
“People can say that I am under pressure, because I haven’t come here and hit the ground running. It affects me if I am not performing, even if I came on a free. The fee will be forgotten soon.”
Premier League bottom side West Bromwich Albion are up next for mid-table Watford at Vicarage Road on Saturday, with the visitors themselves facing plenty of problems in recent months.
West Brom striker Jay Rodriguez was charged by the FA for alleged racial abuse, while four players were questioned by police in Barcelona over the theft of a taxi.
Gray, having overcome plenty of personal turmoil himself, is well positioned to advise.
“It is all about mentality,” he said. “As a player, if you let it affect you, it will affect the rest of the team. You cannot go out there as individuals — the whole team are in this together.”
Nonetheless, Gray’s focus is on the future now. Having gone from non-league to the English top flight in two years, you could forgive him for resting on his laurels, but he is doing no such thing.
“It is a bit crazy to think that I am here,” Gray said. “I started late, in terms of development, but I am still only 26. Jamie Vardy is 31, and didn’t reach his peak until his was 29, so there is much to look forward to.”
($1 = 0.7265 pounds)
Reporting by Peter Hall; Editing by Ken Ferris