Over the years, Sunderland have been blessed with players who have the capacity to drive you up the wall with frustration, before promptly sending you into ecstasy by producing a ‘birra magic’, as Peter Reid once famously said.
These players are often thrilling to watch and can change a game in a flash, but can also leave you slamming your fist into the palm of your hand as they make a move that results in an attack breaking down and glorious chances being spurned.
Nicky Summerbee’s languid, laid-back style for example would never find favour with those who were schooled in the ‘effort is all’ football ethos, and in recent years a player like Jordan Jones epitomised this dilemma - a skillful player, but by all accounts a bad trainer, and someone who only turned it on intermittently.
This season, Jack Clarke has monopolised that particular role, and despite experiencing an up-and-down spell on Wearside so far, Monday night’s encounter at Hillsborough saw the on-loan Tottenham winger demonstrate the very best of his ability at a time when we needed it most.
Since his January arrival Clarke has shown flashes of promise, but consistency of performance has often eluded him, and a regular post-game refrain has been ‘What on Earth did Spurs see to justify parting with £10 million to sign him?’
He is blessed with superb pace and adhesive close control, but his footballing intelligence has often been lacking - there have been moments when you are left throwing your hands up with frustration as he selects the wrong pass, refuses to go down the line instead of cutting inside, or loses the ball in a promising position.
Despite this, Alex Neil has persisted with him, clearly feeling that his attributes outweigh his weaknesses, and given that Neil has seldom made errors in selection there has been a willingness from the fans to give Clarke as much backing as possible.
Over the two games against Sheffield Wednesday, we undoubtedly saw the best, and occasionally the worst of Clarke.
In the home leg he barely made an impact in the first half before sparking into life after the break and offering us more of a dynamic threat during the second half.
On Monday, Clarke raised his game significantly. There were times when his mazy running had Sheffield Wednesday genuinely worried, and he did appear to be our best attacking outlet. Effort was the order of the day, and he gave everything he had, without a doubt.
Nevertheless, we couldn’t find that crucial goal and when the home team equalised via Lee Gregory, there was a genuine concern that Clarke, like many of his young teammates, would begin to wobble and ultimately allow the tie to slip away.
And yet just when it looked as though the tie was heading to extra time, Clarke picked up the ball in a promising position on the left and ghosted to the byline before sliding the ball to Patrick Roberts, who duly stabbed it home for the winning goal.
It is to Clarke’s immense credit that he had the conviction to drive forward and attempt to set up a goal at such a stage of the game. There were no thoughts of ‘Let’s go into the corner, regroup, and try and get through to extra time’. He backed himself and was rewarded.
Clarke can often give off the impression of being a player for whom football is a casual business, but when we needed him the most, he delivered. Neil’s Sunderland is now a mixture of skill and steel, which is clearly a major reason why he continues to select Clarke, and displays like this will earn him even more credit.
It feels like a very safe bet that Clarke will start the playoff final against Wycombe, and that Neil will offer him the chance to make one final contribution to the season’s efforts.
With the wide-open spaces of the Wembley pitch to work with, and 40,000 Sunderland fans urging him on, this could be another game in which he could play a key role, and it would be the perfect way to sign off his spell at Sunderland by helping us to regain Championship status after four long years.