The word ‘flamboyant’ entered the dictionary awaiting the birth of Lionel. With dashing locks and an inability to catch a cross, our man from the south of France played for the club between 1996 and 1998. He was a genuine cult hero on Wearside.
As well as ourselves and Scunthorpe, he also turned out for Nimes, Bordeaux, Stade Laval (on loan), Newcastle United, Cambridge, Enfield and Stevenage Borough.
Signed from Bordeaux for a modest fee of £200,000 in the summer of 1996, the flowing locks of our Lee-oh-nel weren’t meant to grace Roker Park quite as quickly as they did, but a triple leg break to number one goalkeeper Tony Coton during a defeat at Southampton handed Perez the opportunity to make the shirt his own only months into his Wearside career.
Coton had excelled in goal for Peter Reid’s men and the manager would come to lament the importance of his absence over the course of the season which followed. In truth, most fans didn’t really know much about our reserve goalkeeper, but as he ran onto the pitch at The Dell, sleeves rolled up, clad in jogging bottoms and with hair David Ginola would be jealous of, already Pérez hinted he was the stuff of cult hero fantasy.
With a Coca Cola cup game at White Hart Lane coming days later, the Frenchman would endear himself to the away crowd with a marvellous save from a Darren Anderton free-kick. Que a chorus of “Lionel! Lionel! Lionel!” - a chant that would became a terrace regular from Roker Park all the way to the Stadium of Light during his two year stint at the club.
Pérez was one of a kind. Truth be told, Wearside had not seen a more eccentric and unorthodox goalie in its history. Lionel had the exotic name, the charisma and the European style.
But for all his lovable attributes, his goalkeeping was, at best, most often a little average. A good shot stopper, Pérez was fond of making the most difficult of saves - often with his feet bizarrely - before sometimes completely missing a cross and leaving his defence in a state of panic.
Eric Cantona’s famous goal against Perez in 1996 was a prime example of Lionel’s poor decision-making. With his fellow countryman beating the best part of five players, in typical unconventional fashion, Pérez rushed out of his goal allowing Eric to perfectly chip the ball into the top corner and cement itself into Skysports history.
The Sunderland goalie would later admit in an interview that he received constant reminders of that goal:
Every time I go somewhere, people go on the internet and show this f****** goal.
But it’s all right, because I say to all of them, ‘Did you play at Old Trafford? Or have you just watched Old Trafford on the TV on the sofa’?
Despite relegation in 1997, Reid would keep faith in his Gallic stopper. With Tony Coton having to retire due to the injury that had kept him out for much of the previous season, it presented the Frenchman with an opportunity and it was his shirt to lose. The signing of Edwin Zoetebier upon the descent into the second-tier looked to be good competition for the goalkeeping jersey, but the Dutch goalie couldn’t oust the extravagance of Pérez - despite his continued gaffs.
The ostentatious stopper’s final few games of his final season on Wearside are what best summed him up though. Pérez was simply capable of the sublime and the ridiculous in equal measure. His most memorable contribution - an incredible double save at home to Sheffield United in a foggy play-off semi final at the Stadium of Light - was followed by his worst moment only days later.
Lionel’s performance at Wembley was an absolute horror show. In a pulsating game, his erratic behaviour added to our already shredded nerves, as the travelling hoardes from Wearside witnessed an incredible 4-4 draw. The game would of course finally be lost on penalties - Lionel not getting a hand to any of Charlton’s spot kicks.
With his Wembley performance fresh in his manager’s mind, Reid appeared to lose all confidence in Perez and subsequently decided against offering him a new contract and instead he signed a little known Danish goalkeeper called Thomas Sorensen.
Following that Play Off Final, Pérez made an utterly bizarre move to our local rivals Newcastle, and Lionel would later admit his time at St. James Park was shrouded in self-doubt following the nightmarish end to his Sunderland career:
It was my fault, but in fact I was so disappointed to leave Sunderland that I didn't want to play for Newcastle. All the time I was thinking 'Why didn't he give me a contract?' It really affected me, and I was still upset in fact when I start to play with them.
However, at Scunthorpe Pérez regained his love for football during a loan spell in late 1999. He turned out thirteen times at Glanford Park over three months. He looked back on his time there in a positive manner:
It was such a good feeling to play again.
Whether there are 50,000 people or 2,000 people, if the crowd are with me I love it.
Despite enjoying a successful loan-spell with Scunthorpe, a permanent move never came and he then made a move to Cambridge United.
In his final game for the U’s, Pérez was handed the responsibility of taking a penalty - which he missed, managing to injure the opposition goalkeeper in the process. Who else but Lionel?