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Sunderland v Rotherham United - Sky Bet Championship

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Jack Clarke is Sunderland’s freewheeling dynamo, and he has taken to the Championship superbly

After joining on a permanent transfer over the summer, the former Leeds and Tottenham winger has stepped up a division with ease and is becoming one of our most exciting players, writes Phil West

Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When Jack Clarke set off on the slaloming run that finished with him slotting the ball past Viktor Johansson last Wednesday night, you could practically hear the cries of ‘go on son.....GO ON!’ from all around the Stadium of Light.

It was late in the game and energy levels across the field were dipping, but somehow, he was able to find the verve and the mental sharpness to chart a path to goal, leaving a perplexed Rotherham defence in his wake and 30,000 home supporters thrilled at what they had just seen.

Sunderland v Rotherham United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

His moment of glory was just reward for a performance that had been both mesmeric and frustrating in equal measure; indeed, his assist for Ross Stewart’s second goal, a sumptuous outside-of-the-boot pass, was almost as aesthetically pleasing as his own strike, and offered more evidence that his vision and awareness are improving game by game.

From my vantage point in the north west corner, the way Clarke ghosted to the byline before flicking the pass to Stewart was wing play at its best, and the weight of pass was judged to perfection.

Granted, there were times on Wednesday when he picked the wrong option or went down a blind alley, but that is simply part of the deal with Clarke at this stage. If the rough edges can be smoothed away, and his all-round game can be refined, his ceiling is very high.

Suffice it to say, his current form is going a long way toward dispelling the doubts that have hung over him for some time.

When he initially joined Sunderland in January on a loan deal from Tottenham, he was not an instant hit in the red and white stripes, despite his undoubted ability, and there were many fans who said they simply didn’t ‘get’ what he was supposed to be bringing to the team.

Sunderland v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

His early performances for us were littered with spells of inconsistency and frustration. He was ‘too one-footed’, he lacked football intelligence, and there was little evidence to back up Spurs’ decision to part with £10 million to take him to north London.

Since signing on a permanent basis over the summer, however, he looks like a different player entirely, and has taken to Championship football with impressive ease.

The fact that games in this division are more open, and the football is more free-flowing, certainly suits his style of play, and in front of the Wearside crowds, his creative flair is coming to the fore.

Clarke is undoubtedly the kind of player who will often frustrate Tony Mowbray and have him kicking water bottles on the touchline, but is also blessed with the ability to conjure up something special to break a game open and leave everyone amazed at what they have just seen.

Such players can be worth their weight in gold for a club like Sunderland, and I get a sense that Clarke is the kind of player who is eminently coachable and willing to listen, learn, and improve.

With that in mind, if Alex Neil was willing to tolerate his shortcomings for what he could bring to the team, I get a sense that Mowbray will focus on his strengths and give him the confidence and the honest feedback that he needs.

Sunderland v Rotherham United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Admittedly, his laid-back playing style might not be to everyone’s taste, and he is not one of the squad’s workhorses, but given Mowbray’s record for developing young players, his trajectory could be that of a significant upward curve as the season unfolds.

There is, and always has been, a great sense of joy to be found in attacking players who play with passion and have the confidence to occasionally go off-piste and take chances. We’ve had them before at Sunderland, and when they were on form, they were really on form, and the team thrived as a result.

Granted, it doesn’t always work, but Clarke will always have a crack, and after enduring four years of turgid League One sludge, he really does embody the new, progressive approach that the club has embraced.

Yes, you need grafters and players who are willing to do the hard yards, of which we have plenty, but there is always room for some spark.

Following the Rotherham game, Mowbray suggested that Clarke is the kind of player who needs to ‘feel loved’ in order to perform at his best.

Judging by the reception he got from the fans on Wednesday, it feels as though that will certainly be forthcoming, and for a player who might have lost his way at Tottenham and undoubtedly has something to prove, Sunderland really could be the making of Jack Clarke in the seasons to come.

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