Issue 02 Cover: Andre Gray
This article is an excerpt from the Andre Gray cover feature from Issue 02 of GAFFER: Heart & Soul. Available now from our online store now.
A kid with a dream. A teenager who experienced pain, setbacks and succumbed to the usual distractions before falling into trouble. Only to escape, find redemption and defy convention. It’s a story you may have heard many times before. But you’ve not heard it from Andre Gray. The Watford striker who has journeyed from non-league to the Premier League has made a more than an unconventional route to the top. He’s the first to admit that.
Andre arrives early. Which is somewhat of a rarity. No team around him. Just a couple of acquaintances to help him through the day. He smiles, introduces himself to everyone, unpacks his two-piece luggage and waits. Patiently. The rhetoric you often hear around Andre focusses on that one night in Wolverhampton which left him with a four inch scar across his face. Interviews focus on the world that he has long left behind. Other stories focus on a few old tweets which handed him a hefty fine from the FA. While some focus on his football ability. A raw, explosive centre forward who doesn’t fit the usual mould. He has the perseverance of a non-league striker, the predatory instinct of a poacher and the pace and power to rival anyone. It’s all been said before. But none of that tells the story of the real Andre Gray.
It’s not the story of the young boy who travelled to Stoke every weekend to stay with his Nan and Grandad – his ‘hero’ who sadly passed away when Andre was just 13 – to play football. Not the guy who turned his back on all the trouble he was in, leaving the only life he knew, to move to non-league Luton Town. Not the man who acknowledges the world around him perhaps more astutely than anyone would give him credit for. Because no one has ever asked him.
Which is why we’re here. In a south Wimbledon studio for a shoot and interview which has solely been arranged through Instagram DMs and Whatsapp. Again, a rarity. Andre Gray does things differently from other footballers. How he talks, how he thinks, how he approaches his career. Which is why we wanted to know more about the real Andre and how his heart and desire has got him to a place where he’d never imagine he’d get to. “I’ve got to a point where I’ve done everything that I set out to do and more. I’m living my dream.” In an age where more Premier League players are finding a voice, Andre’s is one worth listening to.
As we sit down, Andre’s politeness is slightly disturbed by nerves but it’s soon overcome. Talking us through his life, he considers everything he’s going to say and delivers it with a precision and passion that is not associated with a footballer; a bad boy, a troublemaker but rather a leader of society. Find out what happened when we spoke to one of the most underrated and influential stars in the English game about how leadership unlocked his potential, what it means to be a footballer in Britain today and how he fought and won the battle to define himself.
What was your early life like growing up in Wolverhampton?
I remember just living in a little cul de-sac in a little area called Ettingshall. In just a small two bedroom house with my Mum and my Dad. My room was a typical boys’ room. The usual stuff. Posters of Henry. He was my hero back in the day. There was a few Ronaldo posters but mainly just Thierry.
How do you think people would describe you as a kid?
Mischievous. Hyperactive. Cheeky.
How and when did football enter your life?
I can’t remember what age but my Nan and Grandad live in Stoke, so there was a team up there that I got involved in, just your usual Sunday League team. It was only a thirty minute journey, but every Friday they’d pick me up from school and take me home again on Sunday night. Those first games, when nothing else mattered, with my Grandad on the sidelines, was where it all began.
When did you know you were a genuinely good footballer?
I don’t think I ever did. I went to Wolves at around 11 or 12 years old and played there before getting released. I never really realised that I was good until a lot later in life.
When did you get picked up by Shrewsbury?
15 years old. One of my best friends went on trial there because our P.E teacher knew one of the scouts and I went with him. We were there from U15s and then we both managed to get scholarships. I did two year scholars, then got a first year pro but then got released at 18. Which, looking back, is a cross-road period in a lot of people’s lives.
You then joined Hinckley, which meant you were still relatively close to home. What was your life off the pitch like at that time?
The main reason I got released from Shrewsbury in the first place was for what I was doing off the pitch. It was gang stuff. I wasn’t focussed, I was up to no good at home. Getting into trouble every other day. I only had myself to blame. It carried on at Hinckley throughout the first season and it probably wasn’t until the next season when things really started to sink in with me. It was when I realised what I really wanted to do with my life.
You then had that ill-fated incident, in Wolverhampton in December 2011, where you were stabbed on a night out. What was your initial thoughts when you woke up the day after? As that’s often when the severity of a situation settles in.
I remember looking in the mirror. Waking up and still seeing it was there. It wasn’t a dream. But I knew I just had to get on with it. It is what it is. I knew I couldn’t change it. That’s the way I’ve lived my life ever since. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to be involved in situations. It’s how you deal with things after, how you learn from things. It’s the moment which pushed me forward.
How often do you think of that night?
I think I parked it literally the day after. It just focussed me. It pushed me to live out my dreams, to do something with my life, to do something positive and keep driving forward.
“You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to be involved in situations. It’s how you deal with things after, how you learn from things.”
So, when did Luton become an option? Did you view that move as something of a saviour?
It was exactly what I needed at the time. I wasn’t completely out of what I was doing and that was the one thing I needed; to move out of Wolverhampton. It was the first opportunity I had to do that, it gave me a chance to just start again and be away from it all and just focus. It was a blessing.
How do you switch off and move away from the world you were accustomed to and not look back?
If you want something bad enough and you realise what you need to do it’s easy to overcome. I knew what I needed to do to push myself to the next level. I went to Luton on loan and in a month we were playing at Wembley. I think that’s when it really sunk in that I could make something of myself by playing football.
What clicked for you there?
It’s where my dreams came reality. Most of it is mindset. That’s what I trained myself to do, I knew what it was going to take to move forward. I moved away and lived on my own and got my head down. I had no choice but to do it. I always felt like I needed to be backed up in a corner to push myself.
What are the biggest challenges for a modern footballer coming through the non-league route?
To not let anything get you down. Just keep believing in what you’re doing. To not give up. It is easy to give up. At the time, you’re seeing other teams pay more money for players but that stuff wasn’t ever on my mind. As a footballer, you go through rough patches when you’re not playing too well and the crowd are on your back; that’s when it’s the hardest part. But you need to keep seeing the vision and keep pursuing your dreams.
How’s the mentality changed? Do you have a sense of belonging now?
I’ve got to a point where I’ve done everything that I set out to do and more. I’m living my dream. It’s just about finding that other level to go push for. That’s what I’ve been doing and that’s what I want to do. You always have to be hungry. Right now, I’m hungry for more success and, more importantly, hungry to be a better person.
So, how do you ensure you’re always the best version of yourself?
It takes time. As you grow up you’re learning everyday. You can never stop learning. Over the last couple of years, I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’m just concentrating on learning and being a better person. Not talking as much and listening more. I feel like as I’ve gotten older I’ve come across people that I don’t want to be and I’ve come across people that I would like to be. It’s about finding out who you are.
What’s the greatest piece of advice that you’ve received on this journey?
I’ve had a lot of things. One that stuck with me a few years ago was ‘money doesn’t make the man, the man makes money.’ I realised that a lot of people now think they’re something because they fell into money or have money. But, that’s not the case. You see the richest people in the world and they can be the most humble, the nicest people you’ve come across. How you carry yourself is important – it doesn’t matter about the money.
What do you consider to be your biggest virtue?
Being humble. I don’t think I’ve changed from being the person I was five or six years ago in terms of forgetting where I’m from. I think I’ve just grown up. I don’t think anyone can say I have changed in that way. The only way I have changed is in a positive way. In terms of what I’m doing in my life and how I carry myself.
Tell us one particular experience that you’ve had in your career that has stuck with you…
Luckily, I’ve had a few. A couple of promotions, last season getting to the FA Cup final, the experience overall was unbelievable. I’ve taken every step of my career as it has come. I’ve had a lot of up moments, a lot of down ones too. But, when I look back on my career I know I will be proud of it all.
If you look back from when you were let go by Shrewsbury – you’re now at the pinnacle. Do you think that your success is down to your strength and determination above anything else?
I think the way I’ve got to the Premier League stands me in good stead. I know that when I do go through bad patches in football that I can come out on top because I’ve done that in every league that I’ve played in. It’s just about taking the rough with the smooth. You can’t keep your head down. You might be at some clubs and it doesn’t work, you might be working with a certain manager and it doesn’t work. It’s part and parcel of football. It’s about keeping your head strong and doing what you love.
What do you make of the impact that social media is having on football and the world in general?
I’m on it but I wouldn’t like to be as much as I am. It depends how you use it. People are too caught up in this Instagram world and it’s not real. I’ve said it many times to friends; people don’t post their failures, only their success. That’s why I will never post anything when I’m too high or when I’m too low. Because that’s not what I use it for. I don’t want sympathy.
Do you see it as a bit hypocritical that certain Premier League footballers, including yourself, get reprimanded for old tweets and things which can be seen as controversial, but when it comes to fans submitting abuse, particularly to you and the Watford boys after the Wolverhampton win in the FA Cup semi-final, there’s no sanction? Andre served a ban after homophobic tweets he posted in 2012 came to light just after he had scored his frist Premier League goal against Liverpool. Andre paid the fine, served his four-match ban.
You can’t really run from it. If you’re not getting it from social media you’re getting it on the pitch, you can get it walking down the street – or wherever. On socials, I won’t post any pictures of my family or anything like that because that’s not something they should be exposed to. It’s only been in the last seven or eight months that my Instagram has been public. I only did that for football reasons. For a long time I kept it private because no one needs to know what I’m doing in my life outside of football. If you’re going to have a public Instagram you’re going to have to expect it to come.
It’s difficult for authorities to crack down on it. Because people are making fake accounts, deleting them and doing it again. No one is getting punished for what they’re saying. However, at the same time, you’ve got to take it on the chin because that’s what you’ve put yourself out there to do – and that’s what’s going to happen. You’ve got to learn to have thick skin and take it as it comes. No matter who you are in the world, you’re going to get hate, and some people aren’t going to take a liking to you. I don’t read comments. I post what I post and that’s the end of it.
“I’m always trying to see the bigger picture.”
What’s the biggest misconception of being a footballer in the modern day?
For some reason, I think it’s mainly the English media that are really on footballers’ backs and I don’t really know why that is. If you look at other countries and their footballers, they protect them and look after them because they are one of their own. I think that’s a problem that England has with the media, they are always looking for the bad news and not the good news. When (Raheem) Sterling spoke out, that’s when the media started to realise because a lot of people got on to them about what they were posting. They’ll take one little argument that they see on the pitch and call someone arrogant and all this other stuff. They don’t know what the person does off the pitch.
Me personally, I’m not bothered. You can look at me, think what you want about me, but I know who I am when I go home. Who I am with my family and friends. Anyone that has met me will know what kind of person I am. Hopefully people will see that we’re just normal people who are lucky enough to be living our dreams.
We’ve not asked to be paid x amount of money. That’s what we’ve been given. It’s like the old saying, if Waitrose offered you more money than what you’re on at Sainsbury’s would you go? A lot of the time that’s what it is. The club’s see the players as business and the players have got to look after themselves. It’s a business. I think that’s hard for the fans to understand that sometimes but you don’t know what goes on behind doors. So, you can never really read into what the media say because there’s a side to every story.
Taking it back to what Raheem did, do you think we’ll look back at his comments as a defining moment? Were you having those conversations with people before he went public with it?
I noticed it years ago. But I never thought anyone else noticed it. I got to a point when I thought is it just me? Am I overreacting? Am I seeing something different? I’m just glad he actually did it because he’s been the one person who has had it bad even though he’s a person who has never done anything publicly wrong. He’s never been in trouble with the police or anything like that. There’s loads of players out there who have been in trouble, done things, said things, and you can kind of understand why the media might not like them but with Raheem it always used to baffle me. Now, look. He’s the biggest star in England. He’s paved a way for a lot of people by speaking out. People like him can change things. I think he’s changed things for the better.
Let’s take it back to the pitch. What was the biggest surprise for you when you first arrived in the Premier League?
Tempo, fitness, the overall quality of the players week-in-week-out. A lot less mistakes, a lot more mental pressure. A lot more thinking goes into the games now. It’s not about going out there and running around like a headless chicken, there’s a lot more thought behind it. It takes a while to adapt and to realise that.
Now you’re at the top, are you motivated more by the love of winning or the fear of losing?
I think it’s a bit of both. You kind of get in the middle, where things aren’t going your way you just don’t want to lose. But then, if it is going your way, you always want to win because you feel like you deserve it. At the top level, no one wants to lose, so I think everyone has that small fear of losing. It comes down to what time of year it is; if it comes down to relegation then it comes down to a fear of losing.
What gets the best out of you as a footballer?
I’ve had different managers who’ve had different approaches and I’ve had success with a lot of them. It’s about having an understanding. So, when I go out there it’s about knowing what the manager is asking of me. Obviously to score goals but more about tactically and defensively where they want me. I’d rather go out with a clear head.
What’s the big dream for you now?
I want to score 15-20 goals a season in the Premier League. I want to be up there doing that. I know that I can do that. It’s obviously a lot harder than it is in The Championship but that’s my big dream. My goals to start ratio isn’t bad, it’s pretty much one-in-two across two seasons. I know I can score goals, regardless of anything else that might be my weaknesses, I know I can score goals. So, I know I can hit 15-20 goals a season and push on from there. A lot can happen after that.
How does the mentality change from being a starting striker to coming off the bench? Because there was a period last year where you came off the bench regularly and scored some big goals…
I think it’s trying to go out there and prove the manager wrong and prove the fans wrong while trying to help the team at the same time. After a couple of times starting off the bench I got myself in a mindset where I was thinking, ‘Am I better coming off of the bench?’ I did that to myself. I’d love to have a long run of games, 6,7,8 starts to see what I could do. I don’t think I’ve ever really had that in the Premier League. Even if I do go a few games without scoring goals I know they are going to come. I just change my mentality for when I do come on to score and get the manager backed into a corner and to prove people wrong.
If you weren’t a footballer, what else do you think you’d be doing?
It’s way too farfetch for me to think about that. I don’t know where I’d be now if I didn’t play football. I probably would have ended up in jail at some point. I’ve always been a driven person and wanted to do something productive in my life but not having that platform would have been difficult.
What about your life off of the pitch now, what are your passions?
I’ve been reading a lot the last year or two and I started taking Spanish lessons. I know there is a lot of my life to live after football, I know the game is only a fraction of my life so I want to learn a lot and do things outside of football. I didn’t learn anything in school to help me now, so I’m doing it for myself.
When did you decide to find the time to educate yourself?
Well, we never learned it in school, it was always something just there. Obviously, hearing about all the racism, not just in the UK, but all around the world, it was something I just started to look into. Watching documentaries on TV, then I really got into it. Learning all about my culture and learning about one half of my family and understanding what they had to go through.
How much has it changed your outlook on life?
Massively. Everything I read and everything I see now, I’m always questioning it. I’m always trying to see the bigger picture. Even, the racism side. I see a lot of it as people being ignorant, people being a product of their environment. I know that because I’ve been there myself. I think I just have an open mind on everything now. I listen more than I speak, I get facts before I try and voice my opinion. I’ve learned a lot more in the last two years than I have in my whole life. I just see people differently now. I enjoy listening, taking things in and seeing things from a different perspective.
“I know I can score goals, regardless of anything else that might be my weaknesses, I know I can score goals. So, I know I can hit 15-20 goals a season and push on from there. A lot can happen after that.”
What more do you think can be done to change that ignorance in certain people, to eliminate racism, sexism and homophobia that surrounds certain walks of life?
In terms of school, they need to be taught real-life scenarios. What’s happening now right now in the world. I’ve always said it, learning about Henry VIII in history is not going to get anyone anywhere in the future. I think they need to change the way they teach and what they teach. Taking all these lessons of Maths, English and Science and putting it in real life context, so kids know what to expect when they leave and enter the bigger world. They need to learn history – the history of all sorts, including slavery, the Holocaust and so on – so kids can understand what people have been through, what their parents have been through.
Ever since I looked up on the history of slavery, it changed my entire outlook. If young people were exposed to some of the stories, they’d see a lot of different things in a different way. They wouldn’t be screaming and shouting racist words to people. You have a real life to live after school. You need to know how to get a career, they need to know what they want to do and have the support and understanding on how to get that career. Right now, they don’t have that so they’re forcing young kids into poverty. Getting them trapped in a system that they don’t want to be in.
When you started learning more about history, it obviously inspired the tattoos that you carry on your back. Was there one particular cultural figure which inspired it all?
The reason I got the tattoos was because they all stand for the same thing but they all dealt with it in different ways. Rosa Parks, the way she stood up for herself on the bus and refused to move. Then, Marcus Garvey, who had his own ship and was getting the slaves and bringing them back. Mandela, Malcom X and so on. They were all pushing towards the same thing – the same fight people are making now in racism and in terms of homophobia – they just want equal rights. The tattoos just inspired me because these people all stood up for what they believed in. They stood strong, no matter how many times their people got killed, they still fought for freedom. If it wasn’t for these people we wouldn’t be here today.
All of those names highlight how leadership can come in all different shapes, sizes and styles. What type of leader are you?
I think I lead in terms of giving a positive outlook to people. If anyone is going through something, I feel like I’m good at helping people through things. I’ve been down, I’ve been close to depression and been in bad situations. I can speak to people and help them with a way out.
They say it’s the journey, not the destination that’s important. Is that true of your story so far?
100%. You’ve got the destination in your head but the destination keeps changing as you grow. I’ve always put the journey first. You’re never going to reach the destination at a click of a finger. It’s about enjoying the journey and taking everything in your stride. It’s something I’ve always tried to do. Not to look too far forward but to do everything right in the moment to help me get to that destination.
On this journey, where and when have you been your happiest?
I have days where I’m really happy, happy for where I am now. I don’t get too high and I don’t get too low now. I get on with it. It’s the way I’ve lived my life, I just get on with it. Take things as they come and enjoy the moment.
Like this article? Enjoy all cover features and interviews in Issue 02: Heart and Soul – available now from the GAFFER Online Shop.
Special pricing on early delivery.