During his loan spell at the Stadium of Light during the second half of the 2021/2022 season, Jack Clarke, a player rated highly enough to persuade Tottenham to pay Leeds £10 million for his services, demonstrated a capacity to frustrate and sparkle in equal measure.
Pacy, fleet of foot and blessed with superb skill on the ball, he was capable of running at opposition defences and creating openings for his teammates, as well as chipping in with the odd goal, too.
Conversely, his penchant for cutting inside when going down the line was an option could be maddening, and there were times when his overall influence on games was minimal. This often led to some fairly brutal post-match analysis, with many people casting doubt on whether he should even be in the team, let alone being considered for a permanent transfer.
However, the club clearly saw enough in Clarke to persuade them to revisit a potential deal, and as such, he has joined on a four-year contract for an undisclosed fee. The signing was announced on Saturday afternoon, as we prepared for our first pre-season game against Rangers.
Suffice it to say, this is another positive development as we seek to build an attacking unit that can offer sufficient threat in the Championship. After all, were it not for that assist in the playoff semi-final second leg at Hillsborough, the story might have turned out very differently, and I am not surprised that the club have opted to show renewed faith in him.
With Clarke onboard, we can now call upon an impressive selection of attacking options, with Patrick Roberts, Elliot Embleton and Alex Pritchard certainly capable of making the step up. If we can secure the services of another striker (or two) to provide sufficient cover for Ross Stewart, there is no doubt that we will have the firepower to hold our own in the Championship.
Taking a broader perspective, and in a similar fashion to Daniel Ballard, the addition of Clarke typifies Sunderland’s new approach to recruitment, and not just in the low-key, drama-free way in which the transfer has been completed.
He is a young, dynamic, and exciting footballer, but he is also very raw and with a lot of room for improvement, and there is no manager I would back to get the best out of him more than Alex Neil.
If a grizzled veteran like Bailey Wright represents one end of the player profile scale- experienced, rugged, and with outstanding leadership qualities, Clarke sits neatly at the other. His potential is enormous, and the task for Neil and his staff will be to mould him into a genuine game-changer.
In addition, Clarke is approaching the stage of his career where settling down and finding a footballing home is a must, and there is every chance he could do that on Wearside.
At his age, and with the conveyor belt of Premier League youth prodigies showing no signs of slowing down, you had to ask what represented a better option for him- the chance of regular first-team football for us, the prospect of remaining on the fringes at Spurs, or perhaps even another loan deal at a different club?
Rumours of up to eight clubs vying for his services tells a story in itself, and the Stadium of Light feels like the perfect place for him to express his talent and contribute to what will hopefully be a successful 2022/2023 league campaign.
Who is to say that, in three or four years time, if he makes the impression that he is capable of, we won’t sell him for a substantial fee, thereby strengthening our financial position even further? It is a smart and long-overdue way of operating, and it demonstrates exactly how much painstaking work has gone on behind the scenes to turn us into a responsible, professionally-run club once again.
Another point to consider is that the external perception of the club is clearly changing, slowly but surely.
I would like to think that we are now seen as an attractive, prestigious place to come and play football, rather than a club wracked by instability and uncertainty. That in itself is a blessed relief, after six turbulent years.
Player by player, the squad is slowly coming together. Time is still plentiful as we continue to search for quality additions, but in the space of just over a week, we have added two very exciting talents to our squad, and that is something that Kristjaan Speakman and his team deserve huge credit for.
With stability in the boardroom and the impressive presence of Alex Neil in the dugout, Sunderland are certainly growing ever stronger as we prepare for our Championship return. We are not quite there yet, but things are looking good, and long may it continue.