Jamie Vardy. Charlie Austin. Dwight Gayle. Andre Gray?
Burnley’s club-record signing is hoping to mirror the achievements of those names put before him by going from a non-league nobody to Premier League prodigy.
Just three years ago; Gray was plying his trade for Hinckley United in the Conference North. Nowadays the 24-year-old is just one step away from fulfilling his ultimate dream of playing in the English top-flight.
His goalscoring exploits convinced the Clarets to splash out a reported £6m following fruitful spells at Luton Town and Brentford, an incredible tally that mounted up to over 75 goals in just under 160 games.
After scoring on his home debut against Sheffield Wednesday; Gray is looking to fire Burnley back into the Premier League at the first time of asking after Sean Dyche’s men dropped down from the Promised Land back in May.
Shoot spoke exclusively to Gray about his meteoric rise from non-league football, his amazing adaptation to life in the Football League and what is needed to fulfil his ultimate dream.
It must have been a relief to score on your home debut for Burnley against Sheffield Wednesday?
“Yeah, obviously it was a tough game. We just wanted to get the win more than anything. But to get the goal, it was the icing on the cake.”
After your club-record arrival, the fans will be expecting goals from you this season. Do you set yourself targets?
“No, I don’t. I think every striker wants to score in every game. So that’s the main target, to be scoring in every game. To even get an assist, if I am not scoring, just do something to effect the game. And then obviously the main aim is to get promoted.”
Your move to Burnley was a major summer signing for English football – does the added mediatisation and popularity surrounding your transfer put more pressure on you?
“No, not really. It is just part of football and something that I just have to deal with. As long as I keep working hard I am sure I can justify it.”
Did you feel the added media presence surrounding your move to Burnley, compared to your transfer to Brentford from Luton Town last summer?
“Yeah, it was completely different. It probably went unnoticed that I went to Brentford, but obviously this one was quite popular and it was out there. So it has been different, but like I say, it is just football. After doing well last year, it was something that was going to happen.”
What did the club and manager Sean Dyche say to you to convince you that Burnley is the right club?
“It was just the case of what he thinks of me and what his plans were for me, keeping me grounded really. I know I have still got a load of potential and I have still got a lot to work on. He knew that as well. So I have come into the right environment to learn and to get better.”
Alongside yourself; the likes of Joey Barton and Matthew Lowton have also joined Burnley over the summer. Has that given the squad the boost it needs to bounce back to the top flight?
“Yeah, of course. I think if you look at the key players, like Danny Ings and Kieran Trippier, they left and they were big players. But I think we have still kept most of the team that were playing in the Premier League last season. Then adding the likes of Joey [Barton] and Tendayi [Darikwa] is going to help us get better anyway.”
Dyche has done great in his managerial career so far. I know it’s still early days, but what impression has he made on you so far?
“A massive one. He is an enthusiastic manager and gets involved. He is an honest man as well, so you are always going to know how he feels, so I think that is good as well. I knew he was going to be a good manager. Obviously being good friends with my previous manager at Brentford, so having a second opinion of him was a big, big part of me coming here as well.”
Burnley have 15 points from their opening nine league games. Have you seen enough from the rest of the squad to think, “Yeah, we can win promotion back to the Premier League”?
“Yeah, of course. Last year at Brentford; we were a good footballing team and whenever we would win, we would win a lot of those games by domination. In the first two games here, we might have been under pressure at some points, but we are still winning games. Last year, we may have not came away with anything. That is no disrespect to the boys, it was just their lack of experience really. Just for a lot of us, it was our first time in the Championship, so you can see the difference in that. It is games like that, if you win, that can help you win the league and get promoted.”
Just three years ago, you were playing for Hinckley United in non-league. Now you are playing for Burnley in the Championship, one step away from the Premier League. Can you sum up your fairytale rise through the divisions?
“No, not really! I think it is just a case of taking it in your stride and not thinking about it too much and just get on. I suppose you can’t help the speculation that comes around you. All you can do is your job on the pitch and that is what I have been trying to do. I took that to Luton and I took it to Brentford. I’m just trying to do that now here.”
Having worked your way up from non-league; has your route given you that extra edge and extra drive of determination to succeed?
“Yeah, I think when you see the rise of how well you can do after working hard, it makes you more determined because you can see the benefits of it. It makes me hungrier, yeah. And it makes me one step closer towards the Premier League and that is where I want to be.”
Within the last three years; what has been the one thing that has changed the most since going from non-league to the Championship?
“The quality of football and the level of professionalism. It is just the little things that make the difference.”
You were released by Shrewsbury Town back in 2010. After that; did you ever think that your dreams of becoming a professional footballer might be over?
“I don’t think I ever thought I was never going to make it, I just don’t think I had that mentality to [want to] really do well. I think that was the main part. I don’t think it was a lack of quality or anything like that, it was just my mentality.”
What changed your mentality?
“Reality. Reality settled in. That was the main thing.”
You scored 55 goals for Luton Town during your two-year spell at the club. How much did you enjoy your time at Kenilworth Road?
“I loved it! They gave me my real platform really, getting back to full-time football. I had great years there and every year I was there, I was playing for something in the FA Cup and the league. I had a great time there.”
During your debut year at Brentford; you scored 18 goals in all competitions. Were you surprised yourself at how quickly and impressively you adapted to the Championship?
“Yeah! I think I would be lying if I said I didn’t. But like I said, I don’t really think about it and just got on with it. With injuries around me, I was in the position where I had to play anyway. I think that is probably the main reason why I have reached where I am now, just through playing and getting experience through playing, not just through training.”
Your grandfather was an inspiration during the early stages of your footballing career. How much do you owe him for where you are now?
“Everything. The sad thing is that he is not here today to witness it. But I owe him everything. The same to my mum and nan as well.”
How proud do you think he would be of you now?
“Yeah, I hope he is. Hopefully I am fulfilling the dream he had for me. That is one thing I am happy to do.”
You were involved in a gang related incident in 2011. You’ve admitted to growing out of the gang lifestyle around that time. What made you decide to solely focus on football?
“It wasn’t even after it, it was before that really. But obviously that came along and it was just another driving force really. It taught me a lot. Not just to not be involved in that sort of stuff, but to just let things go. I could have dwelled upon what happened, but I just got up the next day and said, “It is another day, I can’t change nothing, so I will just get on with it.”
Was that incident the all-important turning point in your life?
“Yeah, possibly. Maybe it was a bit before it. But that was probably the nail in the coffin to just get my head screwed on.”