Before we get started, I’d just like to say how excited I am ahead of Saturday’s game as my two former clubs go head to head. Burnley have been terrific at home and Sunderland will once again be backed by a sell-out support, so I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the New Year. My time at Turf Moor wasn’t as long as my time here on Wearside, but I have some great memories and it’s always good to go back.
In games like this you need players who are going to make a difference and Jeff Hendrick has been doing exactly that for Burnley throughout the season. Perhaps it will surprise people to learn that he’s just 24 because he’s been around a long time – he made over 200 appearances for Derby – but he’s taken the Premier League in his stride and established himself as a key midfielder for the Clarets. He’s scored two goals so far, both of which came in victories, and he will give Sunderland’s midfield a real battle on New Year’s Eve.
Like Hendrick, Andre Gray arrived at Turf Moor for a hefty fee but he’s also shown why Burnley value him so highly. In his first season with the club he fired them to promotion with 25 goals – more than any other player in the Championship – while also being named as the league’s Player of the Season. He’s fast, he’s direct and he can score goals, so will pose a huge threat on Saturday and he’s taken an unconventional route to the top which I really like in a player because it shows that little bit extra. Gray has been exceptional at every level from non-league with Luton Town to the Championship with Brentford and Burnley, so don’t be surprised to see him make some noise during the second half of the season.
Sunderland aren’t the only team to have some former Manchester United players within their ranks, with Stockport-born Michael Keane the heartbeat of Burnley’s defence. Still just 23, the strong centre back has already made almost 100 appearances for the Clarets since joining them in September 2014 on an initial loan. He also played for Leicester City, Derby County and Blackburn Rovers during his time at United and was called into the England squad earlier this season. Interestingly, he made his first-team debut under David Moyes against Sunderland, and in recent weeks he’s been linked with a return to Old Trafford which is a testament to his ability and performances.
During the 2014-15 season Patrick Bamford was unstoppable and we all wondered what was next for the Chelsea man after he fired Middlesbrough to within one game of promotion. However, it hasn’t quite worked out for the striker since making the step up to Premier League level and he has a big six months ahead of him. After picking up the Championship Player of the Year award at the end of the 2014-15 campaign, Bamford signed for Crystal Palace but the loan was terminated in December before another frustrating spell with Norwich City ended in relegation. Since joining Burnley in August he’s made five appearances and is yet to score, but having made such a big impact in the north east he’s naturally someone I’ll look out for.
Tom Heaton is another English goalkeeper forging a stellar reputation during the current campaign. Like our very own Jordan Pickford, Heaton has been vital to his team’s success and he’s deservedly an England team-mate of Pickers. The similarities don’t stop there, however, as Heaton also spent a lot of time out on loan during the earlier stages of his career playing throughout the Football League pyramid which is invaluable, especially as a ‘keeper. Heaton has made more saves than any other player in the top flight this season – ten more than second-placed Pickford – and he also has four clean sheets, so he will be a formidable opponent.