PHOTOS: Burnley FC 1, Sunderland 0

TOP scorer last season, and handed the number 9 jersey this, Jay Rodriguez is relishing life as a home town hero.

Monday, 1st August 2011, 8:49 am

The day before the game, after the squad numbers were announced, replica shirts with Rodriguez 9 on the back flew out of the club shop.

And after his match-winning penalty against the Black Cats, the PA booming out: “Burnley’s goalscorer, number nine, Jay Rodriguez” had a certain ring to it.

Where last year was a real breakthrough campaign for the 22-year-old former Barden High School pupil, you sense there is even more to come from a young man who is developing into a special player.

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A lot of comparisons, some unfair, have been drawn between Rodriguez and Sunderland’s £8m summer signing Connor Wickham, after the latter beat Rodriguez into the England Under-21 squad for the European Championships.

While Rodriguez is the best part of four years older, and a different player altogether – more technique than physique – you wonder how much he is worth based on Wickham’s valuation.

After his first goal in pre-season last week at Torquay, a wonderful cameo of his ability, watching the ball across his body before unleashing a stunning 25-yarder inside the post, he was again on target against Sunderland, this time from the spot.

In the absence of Graham Alexander, and Chris Eagles, Rodriguez wrestled with Martin Paterson for the ball, and coolly despatched the spot kick.

His introduction to the first team, in pre-season at Wrexham four years ago, was a confidently-taken penalty, and it is no surprise to see him finally take responsibility.

Manager Eddie Howe said: “There was a little battle, I think, for the ball and Jay got there first, so he took it.

“I think we’ve got some confident players within the squad, and really penalties is a confidence thing.”

It wasn’t his penalty taking prowess that stood out, however, as he gave Titus Bramble the run-around.

He should have had a penalty after 20 minutes, when he collected Andre Amougou’s – as Bikey now wants to be known – crossfield pass and deftly controlled it with his heel beyond Bramble and in on goal, only to be upended as he shaped to score.

Referee Colin Webster ignored appeals, but 10 minutes later, after he was tripped by Bramble, he had no choice. Both managers felt Paterson had pushed Wes Brown in the build-up, but after the earlier decision, it evened things up.

Moments later Rodriguez was involved again, as he linked with Paterson to release Wade Elliott, but he took the shot early and Kieran Westwood made the save. Elliott and former Sunderland wideman Ross Wallace, on the left, were able to come inside and influence play, with the full-backs getting high and wide early – a feature of pre-season.

And while Rodriguez wears the number nine, he is also dangerous as a false nine, off the front, or when deployed as a wide forward, where aerially he is such a menace.

It all added up to Burnley having the better of the chances, while skipper Chris McCann and Dean Marney won the midfield battle.

Sunderland’s only real sight of goal came right on half-time as Wickham sliced wide after Asamoah Gyan headed on Craig Gardner’s free kick.

The second half saw the tempo slow further as more and more substitutions were made, with chances few and far between.

Wallace fired just wide against his former club after tricking his way into range, while impressive sub Ji Dong-Won fired straight at Lee Grant late on, as the Clarets held on for a morale-boosting victory.

Little, as ever, can be read into results in pre-season, but Howe appears to have his players well-drilled, and the added competitive edge of the league season will bring an increased zip and tempo.

New faces this week will add to his options, and the two players he has brought in so far look astute signings – Ben Mee, in particular, was outstanding here against quality strikers, thundering into tackles and composed on the ball.

Roll on Saturday!