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Andre Gray’s 87th-minute intervention last Friday may have been his most crucial yet as an Al-Riyadh player. Against fellow Saudi Pro League strugglers Al-Ohkdood, he grabbed the decisive goal in a 2-1 victory — the third time this season that a Gray strike has handed Al-Riyadh all three points.

It means the team from the Saudi capital are now five points clear of the relegation zone, but Gray, who played four seasons in the English Premier League with Burnley and Watford, knows that it is not the time to get complacent.

“I think the last one was the most important goal I’ve scored this season,” Gray told Arab News. “The table’s really tight at the moment, so three points are really, really important to us right now with the battle at the bottom.

“Every win is going to boost our confidence, so I think after Friday, it’s given give us a big boost. But you can see how tight it is. One win and you feel like you’re completely out of it, then one defeat and you’re back in it again.

“The game before that (a 1-1 draw with Al-Raed) was a tough one, too, but those are ones you can’t afford to lose, so a draw was fine. I think taking four points from the past three games is OK.”

Al-Riyadh appear unlikely to extract any points from their next fixture as they host runaway league leaders Al-Hilal in a derby clash at the Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz Stadium this Friday.

Al-Hilal have been in irresistible form this campaign and last weekend beat Al-Ittihad 3-1 in the Saudi Clasico, a record-extending 15th successive league win. Victory over Al-Riyadh will mean 27 straight wins in all competitions, equalling the world record set by Welsh side the New Saints FC in 2017.

“In any league, when you play against the top team, you need a lot of things to go in your favor; you need a lot of luck if you want to get a result. The goalkeeper probably needs to be man of the match,” Gray said.

“We’ve played Al-Hilal already (a 6-1 loss in September) and it didn’t go too well, but to be honest it’s one of those games that you don’t mark on the calendar as a must-win.”

It has not been an easy first season for Gray on the pitch, with Al-Riyadh struggling at the wrong end of the table. But the Jamaica international, who a decade ago went from non-league football with Luton Town to the English Premier League with Burnley in just two years, insists he is relishing the challenge of playing in the Kingdom.

“I’ve really enjoyed it,” Gray said. “It’s very competitive — if you just look at the table, you can see there’s not much in between the clubs outside of the top six, which I think it speaks volumes about the quality.

“It’s an exciting time to be here — not just football. I think life here as well. You’re seeing things being built, all the events that are happening, the changes that have come in.

“It’s strange because I’ve never really witnessed anything like that in England. But coming here and being at the start of things — you get a feel for how this project is going to be, both in terms of football and outside of football. It was the perfect time to come.”

Gray has already played under three coaches at Al-Riyadh, with Bandar Al-Kubaishan taking caretaker charge after Belgian Yannick Ferrara left his post in September, before current boss — Brazilian Odair Hellmann — arrived in October.

“The coach (Hellmann) has been great,” said Gray. “He pushes us a lot, wants a lot of energy from us. Like everyone here, he has had to adapt and navigate his way through, but he’s just trying to get the best out of the players.

“We all have one goal and I feel like he’s got us all on the same page together. That’s the only way we’re going to achieve what we want to achieve: to stay in the top division.”

Away from the pitch, Gray has long been a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and has a number of tattoos of historic civil rights leaders. It is little surprise, then, that the deterioration of the rights of the Palestinian people is something that has affected him.

“You can see a lot of the news here, but you mostly see stuff now on social media,” he said. “It’s just not right and I think any person on a human level knows it’s not right.

“It needs to stop; it’s horrific, there are no actual words to explain the suffering in Palestine and all the things that are going on. All the world leaders, they need to step up because they’re they are the ones with power.”

Gray has found plenty who share his outlook in the Kingdom, where he has settled quickly since joining Al-Riyadh last summer. A major comfort has been the plethora of sporting events now hosted in Saudi Arabia, which has made the transition from the UK a little easier.

“I’ve been trying to go to all of the sport, to be honest,” Gray said. “I went to the MMA last week and I’ll be going to the boxing this week. Hopefully, if we have a day off, I’ll get to Jeddah for the Formula One. They really know how to do sport and entertainment out here.”

Before a potential trip to the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix comes the trickiest of Pro League matches against Al Hilal on Friday. Despite being overwhelming underdogs, Gray said nothing is a foregone conclusion. 

“It’s about trying to stick to the system and be disciplined and stay focused, and we will see what happens. Football’s a strange old game, so you just never know.”