2016 has been something of a black mark on the history of foregone years, but one man who will be hoping this calendar year never ends is Burnley’s Andre Gray.
Promotion to the Premier League, scooping the Championship title and Player of the Year award along the way, a goal against Liverpool in just his second top-flight appearance and now, a hat-trick to sink a hapless Sunderland. Extending the mantelpiece must be high on Gray’s list of New Year’s Resolutions.
His virtuoso display tore David Moyes’ side to shreds, with Sunderland’s backline in need of quite the night out to consign their shambolic Turf Moor performance to forgotten archives. They managed to grab a consolation through their main source of hope of survival, Jermain Defoe, but they were underwhelming at best and gravely concerning at worst.
Burnley in the mood
The Mackems had actually began the most encouragingly of the two sides, stroking the ball around with a finesse that had thus far deserted them this season, but Burnley had their moments. Gray fired over the bar before Ashley Barnes failed to properly connect with Matt Lowton’s inviting cross, as Sean Dyche’s men searched for a seventh home win of the season.
The latter of those chances incurred the Clarets’ strongest phase of playing during the opening exchanges, with Gray going close twice and Dean Marney fancying his chances from range. What Moyes and Sunderland did not need, then, was the enforced removal of defender Lamine Kone through injury, with Didier N’Dong his replacement.
Moyes’ frustrations were exacerbated by how his side capitulated to hand the hosts the lead shortly after. Barnes drew the attentions of both John O’Shea and Papy Djilobodji while contesting an aerial challenge, allowing Gray the freedom of the borough to race onto the loose ball and fire – just – through Vito Mannone in the Sunderland goal for a second goal in as many games. From there, Burnley never looked back.
Stephen Ward and Scott Arfield came close to adding a second goal for the hosts which, given the paucity of viable opportunities Sunderland created, would probably have been enough to seize the three points. Defoe received next to no service, while Adnan Januzaj, one of Moyes’ better players during his ill-fated Manchester United reign, seemed to lack the spark that once served him so well.
Gray proves he's top-flight material
The interval was welcome relief for Sunderland but a period of contemplation for Gray. He had gone 10 games without a goal prior to his Boxing Day strike against Middlesbrough, and after his first half opener, his appetite for North East opposition was whetted even further when he grabbed a deserved second. Marney’s nonchalant lobbed pass forwards forced Gray to turn on the afterburners, shrugging off Djilobodji in the process and rounding Mannone for a second.
There was a special tribute to London buses on New Year’s Eve too, with the sealing of the inevitable for Gray. Another forward pass, this time from Steven Defour, was chested by Barnes into the path of his onrushing striker partner, who bore no mercy as he coolly dispatched number three for both he and his side.
Other managers may have opted for a more subdued finale to the game, but one of Dyche’s buzzwords is relentless and his side befitted that attitude. Their fourth goal came just as naturally, as Arfield’s surge into the box was ended by a shove from Seb Larsson. Barnes assumed spot-kick duties, and slotted home with ease.
Sunderland’s enduring fans had been vociferous in their support despite their side’s capitulation, and they were given reward, however scant, when goal poaching expert Defoe fired past Tom Heaton from close range, following a mazy run from Januzaj who had clearly recovered a modicum of his spark at half-time.
Yet Moyes’ men struggled to wrest control from their hosts, but for a brief flirtation with Burnley’s goal, as a dour 2016 spills over into 2017. But for one team and one man at least, things don’t appear to be quite so bleak.