It’s fair to say that the past six weeks haven’t been the finest in Sunderland’s recent history.
Results-wise, things have been largely positive with only two losses from seven league games and some impressive wins along the way, but there was also a limp FA Cup exit at the hands of Newcastle, an encounter framed by the kind off-field turbulence that was, even by red and white standards, spectacularly embarrassing.
In addition, the divisive decision to part ways with Tony Mowbray and the subsequent hiring of Michael Beale, to the FA cup ticket allocation fiasco and of course ‘Black Cats Bar-gate’ have all combined to put Kyril Louis-Dreyfus under the microscope and have left the club hierarchy scrambling to regain the trust and goodwill of the fans.
With that in mind, this week’s round of transfer speculation surrounding Jack Clarke, with West Ham the latest interested club, is another unwelcome distraction, but with the January transfer window open and top flight clubs doubtless licking their lips at the prospect of pilfering some of the Championship’s crown jewels, it’s simply par for the course.
Clarke’s importance to Sunderland is no secret.
He’s developed from a talented if slightly streaky and occasionally erratic winger into a genuine all round attacking threat, capable of mazy runs topped with the end product to match, and the ability to change direction on a sixpence, draw fouls, or simply leave opposing defenders flat footed as he gets out of trouble.
It’s true that during Saturday’s clash with Newcastle, Clarke found the going tough against a reinvigorated Kieran Trippier, but you don’t judge the height of a player’s ceiling on one game. Instead, you judge it over many weeks and months, and Clarke is easily one of the most potent attackers in the league.
Quite simply, if Sunderland’s decision-makers want to a) Retain a sense of positivity around the football side of things and B) Prevent the fans from engaging in a full-on, nuclear-scale meltdown, they’ll rebuff all offers for Clarke this month and ensure that the Yorkshireman sees out the campaign in red and white, come what may.
It’s true that, much like Dan Neil and Dan Ballard, Clarke’s long-term future may lie away from the Stadium of Light, but there should be no rush for him to pack his bags, and considering that his last dalliance with top flight football didn’t end well, you could hardly blame him for playing a waiting game.
Does Clarke get into West Ham’s starting eleven right now? Would he be ill-advised to swap Wearside for Sheffield United, Crystal Palace or Burnley, considering their respective situations and the fact that we remain well-placed to challenge for the top six again this season?
The wages Clarke could bank at Selhurst Park, the London Stadium, Bramall Lane or Turf Moor would far outstrip what we can offer, but at the same time, two of the four teams mentioned could easily be back in the Championship within six months.
In footballing terms, therefore, would that be a step forward for him?
If he can continue to be the fulcrum of our attacking play and push past a combined total of twenty goals and assists this season (a likely outcome, particularly if we can find the remedy for our concerns at centre forward during this window), the cards will be in Sunderland’s favour when the summer arrives, not least because he’ll still have two years left on his current deal.
Should that be the case, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that £30 million is the kind of figure we’d be well within our rights to hold out for, and after dismissing a series of derisory bids from Burnley for Clarke last summer, the lie of the land is fundamentally the same.
We’re under no real pressure to sell, there’s no indication that Clarke is unsettled at the Stadium of Light (despite the somewhat loose talk of his agent, Ian Harte) and hopefully Michael Beale is forming a positive working relationship with him and doing everything in his power to show that Sunderland remains the best place for him.
Were he to leave this month, the likelihood of signing a like-for-like replacement for Clarke in such a narrow time frame is very low, and after recent events, Sunderland need to inject a fresh wave of positivity into the 2023/2024 season.
The hierarchy need to get the fans back onside, to show that they’re not going to be swayed from doing the right thing for the football club at this moment in time, and to demonstrate that we’re no longer a soft touch in the transfer market.
One or two new signings and a good return of points from the upcoming games against Ipswich and Hull would go some way towards doing that, but keeping hold of our star winger in the face of top flight interest would be the kind of fillip that Dreyfus, Kristjaan Speakman and the Sunderland supporters so desperately need after a turbulent winter so far.