“I had to be professional and play my part when I came on,” rookie Leicester City winger Demarai Gray tells FFT. “I was seeing out games mainly, instead of trying to get the ball and beat three or four players.” When a 19-year-old Gray signed from second-tier Birmingham City in January, he had to be patient. He’d joined a team riding the crest of a wave with a settled
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starting XI, and found starting opportunities limited; indeed, the only one of his 12 Premier League appearances not to come from the bench was on the season’s final day, with the title in the bag. But Claudio Ranieri had seen enough of Gray to be impressed by him. The youngster was one of the Italian’s go-to players to see out crucial victories in a crunch period for the Foxes, and the teenager stuck manfully to his tasks, even if they sometimes went against his attacking instincts. “Last year my role was to carry the ball and work for the team, but I was happy to do that because we were getting three points,” he says. “Now we’ve all got Premier League winner’s medals for it. This year is a fresh start, and this pre-season is my chance to prove I should be starting games. “The Championship and Premier League are very different, obviously, but I think it suits me here. Working with Ranieri, I’ve improved already – I feel he has me playing to a style that suits my strengths. When he’s with the players, he’s exactly what you see in the media: a happy, bubbly guy.” Gray’s diligence is likely to pay dividends in 2016-17, with Champions League football on the horizon. With his young wideman having already proved his willingness to learn and be professional, Ranieri will feel even more comfortable trusting him – excellent news when you’re trying to follow in Riyad Mahrez’s defence-cracking footsteps. “Obviously, what he did last year is what every winger wants to achieve: goals and assists all the time,” says Gray, who turned 20 in June. “If I can add that to my hunger then that would be great. I love scoring goals, I love assisting and I love helping the team. “Riyad’s a crazy player. He does mad stuff every day in training. His style is different to mine, as I’m more about short, sharp bursts. He’s a weird player, in a way – everything is unexpected. He’s the sort of player who can have a bad game, then the next thing you know, he’s scored to make it 1-0. “But I can learn from him. Sometimes in training, when I get into certain positions the manager will encourage me to shoot as soon as I cut inside. He might use Riyad as an example, and say: ‘Look how many goals he has scored doing that.’ When you shoot earlier, the goalkeeper isn’t set.” Mahrez needed a full season to get his eye in, although Gray has certainly got time on his side. In the meantime, the England Under-21 international has plenty to look forward to as the new campaign nears. “A year ago I was watching Champions League football on television and thinking, ‘One day I’d love to play in this’ – and now we’ve qualified for it!” he laughs. “It’s absolutely crazy. I just hope I’m involved. “I’d love to play against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. That wouldn’t be too bad.”