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Sunderland v Bristol City - Sky Bet Championship

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Jack Clarke has answered some critics this week - and in emphatic fashion

“Clarke’s influence on games can sometimes fluctuate, but in this form he’s absolutely deadly and is a genuine asset to the team”, writes Phil West

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

When Jack Clarke arrowed an unstoppable strike into the top corner to give us the lead against Bristol City on Saturday, it was great to see him savouring the moment and doing the ever-popular ‘shushing’ celebration in the style of Jose Mourinho at the 2005 Carling Cup final.

It was a goal of the highest quality and although it ultimately didn’t win the game, it certainly deserved to and was yet another shining example of what the former Leeds attacker can bring to the side.

Indeed, there was more than a hint of the great Sunderland wingers of years gone by in the strike, and that’s a very, very good thing.

Clarke gathered possession wide on the left, drove forward, and took on his man before cutting inside and BANG - 1-0. Chaos in the stands and elation on the pitch.

It was the kind of goal that we’ve almost become accustomed to, but given the fearlessness with which this team plays and the absurd wealth of attacking options at our disposal, it was merely one of a growing list of gems we’ve scored during the 2022/2023 campaign.

It’s been a fruitful couple of weeks for Clarke, and as the fixtures have come thick and fast he’s stood up and shouldered some of the goalscoring burden in the glaring absence of Ross Stewart, and as Joe Gelhardt tries to get to grips with his role as the lone striker.

Queens Park Rangers v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - Loftus Road Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

After scoring against Fulham in the FA Cup he bagged a brace in midweek against QPR, before following it up with another stormer on Saturday.

With that in mind the idea that he’s ‘not been good for months’ doesn't really stack up - not least in terms of numbers - but perhaps this notion comes from how people perceive him as a player and the way in which he sees games, as opposed to what he actually does.

Clarke has a languid and often unhurried approach that can sometimes be mistaken for a lack of effort and yes, he does sometimes hesitate at times when clarity of thought is needed.

If seeing a winger tearing up and down the flank at 100mph is what you’re looking for he probably isn’t your kind of player but to balance that, he’s got the ability to conjure up something special whenever the mood takes him - either with a goal or an assist for a teammate.

It’s not a secret that his rapport and understanding with Dennis Cirkin is arguably more potent than the connection between himself and Aji Alese, and perhaps tomorrow night’s trip to Rotherham is a chance to unite them on the left once again and give the partnership another chance to flourish.

In terms of future possibilities there’s no doubt that if he wants to, Clarke could hit at least fifteen goals and fifteen assists over the course of a full season.

He has all of the attributes to do so, and it feels as though it’s merely a matter of confidence and steadfast belief in his own ability, which is where Tony Mowbray comes into the picture.

Sunderland v Bristol City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

One hallmark of Mowbray’s time at the club so far is his admirable backing of his players, even if they’re sometimes not quite hitting the heights that we know they’re capable of.

During the winter, it was Dan Neil who benefited from this approach, and now it feels as though Clarke will be next in line.

Mowbray clearly understands that Clarke is a mercurial player who needs to feel loved in order to perform - not unlike Patrick Roberts - and that approach is exactly what’s needed for a player at his stage of development. Public backing and private constructive criticism is a well-established strategy, and the results are speaking for themselves.

We’ve got plenty of workhorses in the squad who can do the hard yards in order to lay the platform for the likes of Clarke to weave their magic.

When he plays with his head up and his confidence is high he can put the frighteners on opposing defences whenever the mood takes him, and the exciting thing is that like so many of our players, we’re only scratching the surface of what he could do in the years to come.


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