Gray eager to show true colours after languishing in shade
Why Birmingham's midfield misfit is waiting for the window of opportunity to deliver
Julian Gray is not exactly sitting by the telephone. It's just that either this month, or in the summer, he expects to be leaving Birmingham City. "I'm hoping something can be done in January because I just want to be playing football," the gifted left-winger, whose three-year contract expires at the end of the season, admits. "I feel I have to kick on. I'm 27 and it's my prime time. I had two seasons in the Premiership and think I did well, so it's where I want to be. I've got the belief but need to be at a club where I can reach that maximum."
Gray thought that club would be Birmingham, but the manager, Steve Bruce, who signed him from Crystal Palace, does not now appear to share that belief. Gray has made just six appearances this season for the Championship leaders. "I don't know why," he says. "But pre-season I wasn't featuring. David Dunn was fit, the manager signed Gary McSheffrey and I didn't even make the bench. I could see I wasn't in the plans." Although Gray takes the view that "every experience makes you stronger", it was still a shock.
"There's no point harping on about bad things," he says. "I look at my situation and think, 'Right, I can either accept it or do something about it'. Every day I go into training and do my best. It may be that I have to move, it may be that I will get an opportunity here. But I can't see that happening at the moment. Maybe I need a fresh start again."
As a professional footballer Gray knows he is in a privileged position, but there are understandable frustrations, and times like the January transfer window provide opportunities to change that. With his technical ability and pace it is no surprise that a number of Premiership clubs are believed to be considering making an offer. "I'll leave that for others [his business manager, Chris Nathaniel, and the club] to sort out," he says. "But I'm naturally a positive person. With my ability and inner strength I can come through this too."
Gray nearly left last summer, along with 15 other Birmingham players, following relegation. Fees were agreed with Charlton Athletic - that fell through because Birmingham wanted Marcus Bent too - and Palace. But Gray, understandably, did not want to return to Selhurst Park, which he had left, in acrimonious circumstances, to move to the West Midlands in the first place.
"How I look at life is that I always want to do better," Gray says, and there is a common theme in his career, the pursuit of self-improvement. It started at Arsenal. Aged nine, he watched from the sidelines as his older brother, Trevor, trained as part of the club's youth system. Soon the scouts were looking at Julian too and he was drafted in and working his way through.
In 1998, by which time Trevor had been released, Arsène Wenger offered Julian a two-year contract. He accepted but, eventually, grew frustrated. "At the time they had [Marc] Overmars, Ashley Cole, Freddie Ljungberg and Thierry Henry was also playing on the left," Gray recalls. "And then there was talk of Robert Pires coming. I'd made my debut but I didn't see any chance for me. I wanted first-team football and I chose to go to Palace."
It was not a step back, it was a step forward. Gray was signed by Steve Coppell, but two weeks later the manager was sacked by the new chairman, Simon Jordan. After a while Gray did establish himself, but Palace struggled. A series of managers came and went and Gray decided that he had to move on himself.
"I wanted to play in the Premiership," he says. A stand-off with Jordan ensued. At one time Gray, having refused a new deal, was not allowed to train at all. Offers from Blackburn Rovers, Charlton and Leeds United came to nothing as Palace demanded a greater fee.
The supporters grew hostile, believing he had turned his back on them. "They'd been told that I said I was too good for the club," Gray says. "But that wasn't true." After a long hiatus, and a loan spell at Cardiff, he was brought back into the team. "I was booed but, after 10 minutes, hit the crossbar and then set up a goal," Gray says. He was flying again and, with the arrival of Iain Dowie, so were Palace. Promotion was achieved via the play-offs but Gray had not changed his mind. He still wanted to go. "Birmingham gave me the opportunity. I needed that fresh start," he says, and he took it.
One game, in particular, stands out in his first season in the Premiership. "We played Man United at home," Gray recalls. "I played left-back and marked Cristiano Ronaldo out of the game. I got man of the match and that was maybe when some people started talking about playing for England. They could see I had something."
Among them was Bruce, who declared: "Julian can be anything he wants." But, like Palace, Birmingham began to struggle. Relegation was staved off, but the following year they went down. Gray was back in the Championship but not in the team.
Does he feel he has under-achieved? "People say, 'That person's got potential but he's not done anything'," Gray says. "But it's not just about the individual. We're in a sport that's a team thing, and everyone needs that potential to be drawn out of them." Gray feels he can do his part. He just needs someone to help him reach that "maximum".
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