Only Peter Reid and Lee Clark, and perhaps whoever served them at the Yarm Country Club, know for sure whether it really took five shared bottles of champagne to persuade the Wallsend-born midfielder to join Sunderland from his beloved Newcastle United.
That is what I recall Reid saying happened in an interview at the time. But whatever the truth of the 1997
booze-up recruitment meeting, it will come as little surprise to Sunderland supporters that Clark now regards the move as a mistake.
Having helped us to promotion, he then chose to wear a t-shirt bearing the slogan “Sad Mackem Bastards” at the 1999 FA Cup final, which he attended as a NUFC fan (they lost to Man Utd).
He never played for Sunderland again and the incident in commonly regarded as the trigger for his departure.
But in his newly published (and ghostwritten) autobiography Black or White, No Grey Areas, which you can buy from Salut! Sunderland’s Amazon shelf, he insists he had already told Reid he could not give 100 per cent against Newcastle. With the two sides together in the Premier, that would have handicapped Reid unreasonably on team selection.
From an Evening Chronicle report, we have Clark’s explanation of his feelings: “Even though my time at the Stadium of Light ended on a sour note, I’d like to think Sunderland supporters appreciated I was an influential player in a very good team for the two years I was on Wearside.
“Sunderland fans knew where my heart lay, but were happy as long as I did the business for them on the pitch. And they knew I always did that.”
Clark says he looks back his time at Sunderland as two of the best years of his life. He claims it was honest rather unprofessional to make it clear he could not play for us in a Wear-Tyne derby.
The player, or, rather, his “co-author” Will Scott adds:
To understand you have to know about the feeling between the two North East clubs. People talk about the Old Firm game; the Merseyside and Manchester derbies; the north London contests and other local clashes. I’m sure they are passionate, feisty affairs with no quarter drawn.
But the Tyne and Wear derby is something else. There is pure hatred, poison and venom. It makes seemingly rational people punch horses for God’s sake. I wish that wasn’t the case but it is.
Speaking only for myself, a player’s allegiance to the Mags is not, in itself, of the least concern. I make judgements based on performance, and therefore rated Clark but not, for example, Danny Graham.
As I wrote at ESPN a couple of years ago, Clark “showed exemplary resolve and midfield flair to help Sunderland to a runaway promotion as champions in his second season”.
The publisher’s blurb tells of a book that is “explosive, controversial and hilarious in equal measures”, tracing the rise of an “emotional, talented, yet cheeky footballer with a volatile temper”.
Wearing that t-shirt was immature and provocative, and there is a strong case for saying a true pro should be able to rise above tribal rivalries and always do his or her best.
But I tend to believe Clark when he says he was already committed to leaving and had made his intentions clear to Reid. I will choose to look back on a player who made a valuable contribution to what remains the best Sunderland side I have seen in decades.