Burnley 1 Middlesbrough 0Andre Gray rewarded manager Sean Dyche’s show of faith with a priceless winning goal as Burnley beat old rivals Middlesbrough to make it a happy Christmas for the Clarets’ fans at a sold-out Turf Moor.
Gray hadn’t scored since helping secure a 2-0 win over Liverpool on the second weekend of the season in a stop-start campaign for last season’s leading scorer.
But Dyche had given the striker a run of games in recent weeks and also kept him on the pitch when nothing much had happened for him against the Teessiders.
And just when it looked as though the two teams who fought out last season’s Championship title race would struggle to be separated again, Gray showed his predatory instincts to make sure it would be Burnley who came out on top again.
With 10 minutes to go, a knock-down from Sam Vokes gave Gray his first sight of goal and that was all he needed to bury a low shot which was too hot for Victor Valdes to hold as Dyche’s men secured a priceless three points from a sixth home win to move to 14th place in the Premier League table.
Burnley started with one change from the side that faced Tottenham a week previously, with Jon Flanagan replacing the suspended Matt Lowton at right-back as they looked to go back above Boro in the league table.
And it was a nervy start from Burnley’s back four, not helped by some sloppy passing to concede possession in dangerous areas on an afternoon when a gusting wind made football difficult.
On-loan Valencia striker Alvaro Negredo, with four goals in his previous four games, looked as though he might bring his class to bear but Boro’s only early chance came the way of Cristhian Stuani on his return to the visitors’ starting line-up.
The Uruguayan international was released by Antonio Barragan’s excellent ball over the top but with just goalkeeper Tom Heaton to beat, steered his bouncing volley wide of the target with 12 minutes gone.
The Clarets took their time to settle but gradually began too to take the fight to Boro, invariably led by the industrious Ashley Barnes, an ever-willing target.
Barnes did a fine job of holding the ball up and bringing others into play and when he had the chance to have a go himself, tested Valdes with a skidding the effort the former Barcelona keeper turned round a post at full stretch.
The Teessiders were visibly rattled for a spell and Valdes was called into action again to beat away a fierce drive from George Boyd after Scott Arfield had rolled the ball to him 30 yards from goal.
But Burnley couldn’t maintain the momentum and a cagey contest remained goalless into a second half which got increasingly niggly as the value of the points at stake became ever more apparent.
Heaton was forced into his first meaningful save of the afternoon when he held onto a Stuani header following a corner as Boro began to build up a head of steam.
And the same player then glanced a header wide from another Gaston Ramirez delivery.
Dyche sent on Vokes with half an hour to go to try and wrest the initiative back and then introduced Steven Defour and Johann Berg Gudmundsson as the Clarets tried to force the issue.
And Vokes played a big part as the Clarets grabbed the winner with 10 minutes to go.
The striker won an aerial battle to flick on a Heaton free-kick and when the ball dropped for Gray, the striker hit a superb first-time effort from 18 yards which Valdes stopped but could not hold as the ball bounced from his grasp over the line by the foot of a post.
Jeff Hendrick then became the sixth Burnley player booked, which will earn the Clarets a fine and the midfielder a one-match ban.
But with every player totally committed to keeping a first clean sheet since the end of October, Burnley closed the game out with no alarms to safeguard a vital result.
Burnley: Heaton, Flanagan, Keane, Mee, Ward, Boyd, Marney (Defour 74), Hendrick, Arfield (Gudmundsson 77), Barnes (Vokes 66), Gray.
Substitutes: Robinson, Darikwa, Kightly, Tarkowski.
Booked: Boyd, Mee, Flanagan, Ward, Gray, Hendrick.
Middlesbrough: Valdes, Da Silva, Gibson, Chambers, Barragan, Clayton, Forshaw, De Roon (Friend 86), Ramirez, Negrado, Stuani (Traore 86).
Substitutes: Guzan, Bernardo, Leadbitter, Downing, Rhodes.
Booked: De Roon, Ramirez, Barragan, Da Silva, Negredo.
Referee: Craig Pawson
Att: 21,562 (2,430)