It had only been seven weeks since we all celebrated an all-conquering season, where we swept everyone aside on our way to claiming the Nationwide Football League Division One title after amassing a record breaking 105 points, but things appeared to be going wrong in our preparations for what was ahead.
In the seven weeks that had passed, nobody had yet come through the door to sign on the dotted line for Peter Reid’s side, but in that time, Michael Bridges and Allan Johnston had been placed on the transfer list due to contract disputes - and on this day 23 years ago, midfielder Lee Clark joined them.
It went back to the FA Cup final from the previous May when Manchester United demolished the mags at Wembley on their way to their treble winning season without breaking a sweat.
In the crowd that day was a certain Sunderland midfielder supporting his boyhood team, and he was outside of a pub in the capital when he was handed a t-shirt with “sad mackem b******s” emblazened across it, and a photograph was taken.
In the current day, this would be across social media within minutes - with club and players releasing a statement or responding in Twitter within the hour - but things were slower to ferment with situations like these back in the day, and the relevant parties bided their time.
It would be a few weeks later by the time the photos were released by the mainstream media, because that is pretty much all there was, and the reaction was fairly inevitable, although most people could imagine the situation the player was in.
The 26-year-old was signed two years prior in the summer of 1997, which was announced on the same day as his first England call-up by manager Glenn Hoddle as he prepared his squad for Tournoi de France, which was used as a springboard for the World Cup a year later.
The midfielder signed from his boyhood side Newcastle United in a deal worth around £2.5 million, and as he explained in his autobiography, Peter Reid wasn’t sure if he’d get his man:
Convincing him to come in the first place had been hard work as his affection for Newcastle was clear, and it was difficult enough for him to contemplate leaving his boyhood club without considering moving to their local rivals.
But I got into his agent, Paul Stretford, and managed to talk him into bringing Clarky down to Manchester to meet me at a restaurant called Harper’s.
At first, I could tell he was reluctant to be there with me, which was fair enough. Having supported Liverpool and gone on to play for Everton I could at least understand his mindset, even if I hadn’t had similar hang-ups about changing loyalties.
He told me he was only seeing me out of courtesy but six bottles of Laurent Perrier later he agreed to sign for me. It was one of the best drinking sessions I’d ever paid for, especially as Bob Murray ended up picking up the tab.
Clark had been a revelation in midfield for the Lads for the two years at the Stadium of Light, scoring 16 goals in 85 appearances as we only ended up the losing side on eleven occasions in the league over the two years he was with the club.
But following the leak of the picture, Peter Reid met up with the player and agent Paul Stretford once more.
A statement was released, describing the midfielder’s future at the club as “untenable”, with Lee Clark commenting after the meeting:
This season is obviously an important one for the club and it is essential that the team receive the full backing of their supporters. Quite naturally, I have to accept that my presence could be an unsettling factor and with this in mind, I have reluctantly agreed to go on the transfer list.
Peter Reid shed a little more light on the situation in his recent autobiography when he said:
I really liked Clarky and he was one of those who was going to be important to us in the Premier League, but all of that changed when he went to watch Newcastle in the FA Cup final against Man United.
In the eyes of our fans, it wouldn’t have been ideal that he was there at all, but being a professional I could relate to his decision because there are plenty of players who go to see the team they support in big games, and it’s never really a problem.
But Clarky didn’t just stop with getting a ticket and sitting in the stands, he wore a t-shirt bearing the slogan ‘Sad Mackem b******s’. As soon as pictures of him started to appear in the media it was obvious to everyone at Sunderland, particularly me, that his time with us would have to be brought to an abrupt end.
When I next saw him I told him he had to go, it was as simple as that. Our fans wanted him out and there was no way back.
It’s probably a good job this all took place before the introduction of social media, not only because of the reaction that would have faced Lee Clark himself, but the reaction to three players with the talent of Michael Bridges, Allan Johnston and Lee Clark all heading out of the door as we prepared for a season in the Premier League following promotion.