Having spent much of his career in the non-leagues with first Hinckley United and Luton before moving to Brentford in 2014, Andre Gray will now be quickly discovering the rigours of life in the limelight.
Five Premier League goals for Burnley this season has projected him into the headlines, but news of his relationship with Leigh-Anne Pinnock of pop group Little Mix has intensified the spotlight on the 25-year-old.
The gossip pages have recovered news of the ban Gray served earlier in the campaign for homophobic tweets issued four years ago and though his manager Sean Dyche claims the striker has put the suspension behind him, he will be aware that the wider public eye will carry greater responsibility.
“I think his attitude’s been clear that he wants to come in and continue to do well, he’s cleared his mind of any thought on other [things] and he’s been ready to go”, Dyche said after Gray got the only goal in the win over Middlesbrough on Boxing Day.
That ended a ten-game goal drought which extended before his suspension in late September, serving to curtail a bright start to a campaign that began with an energetic display, and an excellent goal, in the 2-0 home win over Liverpool.
A hat-trick in the 4-1 rout of Sunderland on New Year’s Eve, each goal highlighting a nerveless composure in-front of goal after breaking clear of the defender to latch onto through balls, suggested Gray is returning to the form that top-scored in the promotion campaign of last year with 23 goals.
Restored to full-fitness and refocused, Gray, in-tandem with Sam Vokes (of whom only Christian Benteke has won more headers than so far this term), looks more like the striker that Burnley, sitting 12th and 8 points clear of the relegation zone as they make a decent fist of their second Premier League campaign under the disciplined eye of the under-appreciated Dyche, are pinning their hopes to find the goals that will keep the clear of any trouble.
Gray got his goal against Middlesbrough and his first against Sunderland from knock-downs by Vokes, the partnership also linking-up against Liverpool as Gray’s energetic hunt of the ball and calm pass allowed the Welshman to swivel and find the net with a rasping drive, and it will not be the last we see of the pair who hit 38 goals between them in the Championship last season.
Burnley like to sit organised in a rigid shape without the ball, only West Brom have averaged less possession while only Middlesbrough have mustered less shots, but in the robust Vokes they have a willing focal point for direct balls out of their own half and in Gray they have the clinical co-striker ready to pounce.
Between them they have accounted for 9 of Burnley’s 22 league goals and would have had more had they both converted late chances in the narrow 2-1 defeat to Manchester City on Monday.
Though the pair could not break the deadlock in Saturday’s dull 0-0 FA Cup draw at Sunderland.
The Dyche factor
Dyche, whose achievements so often go staggeringly unnoticed, deserves immense credit for not only motivating his Burnley team to win promotion at the first time of asking after their relegation from the top-flight in 2015, but for making them competitive at that level.
To do that he has wrung the best out of the likes of Michael Keane, Ben Mee and Matthew Lowton at the back, whilst also unearthing the potential from Jeff Hendrick, Steven Defour and Johann Berg Gudmundsson, despite the pressures of signing for a collective total of just under £20 million in the summer.
Meanwhile his seemingly unique skills in harnessing the conflictions of Joey Barton has convinced him to take the plunge with the outspoken midfielder for a second time.
Gray, with a background of gang violence in his home town of Wolverhampton with a scar across his face, picked up when he was 18, to show for it, can be added to Dyche’s list of man-management victories although the striker, who speaks of one of his friends dying in jail, is grounded enough to know that his motivation stems from himself.
“Still I Rise” is the tattoo Gray has etched on his chest.
“You’re going to get adversity along the way and some things will knock you back, but as long as you can fight through it and get back up”, he explains, and that’s what the striker did following his release from Shrewsbury at the age of 13, scoring goals for Telford and Hinckley before earning moves to Luton and then Brentford.
Reaping the benefits
Burnley broke their club transfer-record to sign him from Dean Court for £6 million and are reaping the benefits even if they are learning the striker’s past, regardless of how distant, can still come back to haunt.
Gray said he was a “different person” following his FA charge for his 2012 homophobia and with his links to chart-topping Little Mix thrusting him further under the scrutiny of the tabloids, the pressures to prove it will be high.
“It’s definitely in my mind,” says the striker about the prospect of playing for England and that will be the next stage for the 25-year-old who has followed in the footsteps of Jamie Vardy and former Burnley strikers Charlie Austin and Danny Ings who have shown they can comfortably reside with the big boys of the Premier League.
With a determined attitude and time on his side, still he rises.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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