I’m a former non-league footballer who married a pop star… now I play against Neymar

8 months ago 58

FORMER Watford and Burnley striker Andre Gray has opened up on his move to Saudi Arabian side Al-Riyadh.

Gray, 32, joined the Saudi pro-league in September as a free agent after leaving Greek first division team Aris Thessaloniki.

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Andre Gray played against Neymar just days after joining the Saudi Pro League[/caption]

In an interview with The Times, Gray said he was dropped “straight in at the deep end” in the star-studded Saudi Pro-League when he made his debut against star-studded Al-Hilal.

Al-Hilal were in the midst of signing the likes of Neymar, Ruben Neves, Kalidou Koulibaly and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and dispatched Riyadh by six goals to one.

He said: “It was probably the best game to get involved in. The stadium was full and all the cameras were on Neymar.

“But I played against Argentina for Jamaica and there was only one person anyone was interested in: Messi.

“So, [hype about superstars] happens all over the world, not just here.”

Despite the ample money swilling around the Saudi Pro-League, the 32-year- old striker says he earns the same pay packet as he did at Aris Thessaloniki – albeit tax free.

On being one of the lesser known stars in the league, Gray said: “Look, people are not stupid.

“There’s a lot of money here, but Saudis aren’t silly. Of course Ronaldo is on what he’s going to be on.

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“But for most players the money is nothing like what the media have made it out to be.”

Gray, who worked his way to the Premier League via loan moves to the likes of non-league team AFC Telford United and Hinckley United says the standard of the Saudi league is growing.

He told The Times the league “is no different to the Premier League, where you have top clubs with big players and massive transfer budgets and then the rest.”

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Gray joined the Saudi Pro League in September[/caption]
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Gray made his name at Luton after coming through the ranks at Shrewsbury Twon – where he was twice loaned to the non-league[/caption]

He said: “What they [the Saudi owners] are trying to do is create strong, stable teams, hopefully like ours, who aren’t high profile but have the quality to compete.”

Gray lines up alongside the likes of former Southampton striker Juanmi and former Sunderland midfielder Didier Ndong as the star foreign players in Al-Riyadh.

The forward is famously married to former Little Mix star Leigh-Anne Pinnock and the couple have two twin daughters.

He says that his family have not joined him in Saudi yet but have a positive experience when they visit due to the “safety” of the country.

He said: “My kids — it was the same when my nieces and nephews visited — were just running around.

“You see kids out at the park after dark and women out late at night by themselves, feeling safe. You don’t get that back home.”

While Gray is one of the stars in Saudi on a more modest pay packet, he defended Jordan Henderson‘s decision to come to Saudi for the money amid accusations of sports washing.

Henderson joined Al-Ettifaq despite Saudi Arabia‘s horrendous record on LGBTQ+ rights and him being an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community in Britain, Gray said: “I’m going to defend him. You don’t know his situation.

“Any person in any walk of life — say you were offered double the amount of money — you’d have to think about it.

“He is there with an old team-mate [Steven Gerrard is his new manager] and is trying something different when he doesn’t have much time left in his career.”

On Saudi Arabia as a sports washing project more generally, Gray said: “People are always going to have something to say about footballers coming here and about so-called sportswashing but, the way I see it, is don’t throw stones if you live in a glass house.

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Gray is married to former Little Mix star Leigh-Anne Pinnock[/caption]

“Saudi owns so many businesses in England. They own Newcastle and there’s Man City [owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group], all these other clubs in France, Spain and their ownerships [by Gulf State countries]. It’s the way football is now.

“For me, a lot of criticism is ignorant, made without coming to the country and seeing it for yourself. There’s an agenda against this league and this place.”

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