“I never dreamed of this happening when I was at Hinckley,” says Andre Gray, as he struggles to come to terms with the idea that, less than six years after turning out for a team heading for a 20th-place finish in the Conference North, he has just completed an £18m transfer between top-flight clubs and is preparing to play Liverpool.
It very nearly did not. There were the years the new Watford forward spent involved in Wolverhampton’s gang culture, of which he carries a permanent memento on his left cheek, scarred by the slash of a knife. In his youth he lacked the application to go with his talent, leading to him being released by Wolves when he was 13 and by Shrewsbury five years later, not being considered good enough even for a place in their reserves.
Then during that 2011-12 season he came close to joining Tamworth, a transfer which might have set his life on a very different path. Instead he remained at Hinckley, excelled in an FA Trophy tie against Luton in January which went to a replay and moved to Kenilworth Road weeks later for the princely sum of £30,000.
“Some of that had to be paid to me because they hadn’t paid my wages,” he says. “They were in a bit of trouble over money, so the fee helped them out. Money can be a big thing in the lower leagues. When I was at Hinckley I was on £200 a week. I was flying around getting myself into trouble here and there. It was a learning curve, relying on money that wasn’t coming and having to survive. It made me learn a lot and it’s one place I’ve never wanted to go back to – and hopefully I don’t have to now.
“I was living at my mum’s, so at least I had a roof over my head. Me and my mates, we were all in the same boat. If anything I was in a slightly better position just because I had a wage. That’s how we grew up. We grew up just having to survive. It wasn’t so bad at the time, until you look back. That was just a young stage in my life but luckily the Luton situation came round at just the right time and I haven’t looked back.”
Gray was at Luton for a little over two years, in which time he made 97 starts, scored 52 goals and earned a move to the Championship with Brentford, where he spent a single season before heading to Burnley in 2015.
“When I was at Hinckley it was just a case of taking it one step at a time – try to get into the Conference, then League Two and so on,” he says. “To be totally honest, I thought it would take longer but I got a bit of luck and I got thrown into the deep end and I managed to come out of it in the end.”
In his first season at Turf Moor Gray scored 25 goals and was named the fans’, players’ and the overall Championship player of the season as Burnley streaked to the league title. Last season was very different, with the team taking a much more defensive outlook, and in the end outscoring only the three relegated sides. Gray managed nine goals in 32 appearances, including a hat-trick at home to Sunderland.
“The first half of the season was difficult,” he says. “From winning promotion, scoring nearly 100 goals throughout the team and 25 myself, a season where I’m coming off the pitch thinking: ‘How did I miss that?’, I’m coming off thinking: ‘I didn’t even have half a chance.’ It was difficult at first, and it was hard work up there sometimes. Quite quickly I realised it was about the team. That was the main thing. It was never going to be easy for us. We were doubted from the first day. Nobody gave us a prayer and we proved a lot of people wrong.”
He has moved to another team who many expect to struggle – Watford start the season as the fourth favourites to finish bottom – but hopes Marco Silva will exploit his pace and finishing ability better than Burnley did last season. “The manager here has new ideas and I admire what he did for Hull last year,” Gray says. “He has a different way of playing and I felt coming here was a new challenge, a coach with different ideas and somewhere to test myself.
“I think some moves come about because a director at a club wants it to happen, and there’s some moves where you’re doing an agent a favour or something along those lines. But me coming here is what the manager wanted. He wanted me. And speaking to him, it’s obvious he’s got a vision for me. So I’m not just coming here because of someone who’s working upstairs, it’s the manager’s say-so, and that’s a huge part of it.”
Last September Gray was suspended for four matches because of some homophobic tweets he wrote as a 21-year-old. Now 26, he speaks with the awareness of someone who has examined, and transformed, his life and his lifestyle and been handsomely rewarded for it. “At first I didn’t take football too seriously and then I realised what I wanted to do. I was seeing players get moves; a good friend went from Ilkeston to Luton and that made me see what was possible,” he says.
“I wasn’t putting my all into it and I was still managing to score goals, and that gave me something to dream about, and something to work hard for. So I ended up going to the gym on my days off, trying to be a step ahead of everyone. Then we played Luton and I did OK and they came in for me. And I haven’t looked back.”