Being a Sunderland fan, like being a fan of most football clubs, means it doesn’t take long to become accustomed to disappointment. As a boy, you might shed a tear when Coventry City put five past you in a 1990 Littlewoods Cup quarter-final, but you soon grow up and find ways of coping with the immediate hollow and empty numbness that follows a cruel defeat. Unless, that is, you are the kind of grown man who turns up to a game wearing face paint, holding a homemade cardboard sign, and dressed head-to-toe in official club merchandise. Then you know the cameraman is looking for your red puffy tear-stained face as your team is relegated. League defeats, shock cup defeats, derby defeats, play-off defeats, semi-final defeats and relegations all become a part of the normal rhythm of football.
However, every now and again something happens that disappoints you more than any defeat and you rarely see it coming, as more often than not it’s something that happened off the pitch. In the days before smartphones, Twitter, and 24-hour sports news, the latest stories usually arrived, without preceding rumours, via the newspaper, Teletext or local news. In the summer of 1999 everything was good in Sunderland as we rode the magic carpet under Peter Reid. We had romped to the title in the second tier with 105 points playing free-flowing attacking football in front of packed crowds in a brand new stadium. There was a renewed enthusiasm and confidence not seen for years as we looked forward to life in the Premier League.
In the close-season I scoured the papers for news of international signings, most of which appeared to be made up to fill pages by some random transfer generator. What I did not expect to see looking back at me was Lee Clark, one of our key players, in a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase ‘Sad Mackem Bastards’. Just to rub a little extra salt in the wound the picture was taken while he was on the way to watch Newcastle United in the FA Cup final, which they eventually lost to Manchester United’s “Treble” winners.
To anyone not familiar with the northeast world of Geordies, Smoggies, Sanddancers and Pit Yakkas, a Mackem is a person from Sunderland. Geordies consider it a derogatory term but many of the inhabitants of Wearside have accepted it and use it as their own, regardless of the origin, as they feel it is better than being labelled a Geordie. The origins and meaning of the word Mackem are much debated, but the message from Clark’s t-shirt was clearly understood.
Sunderland had signed Clark two summers earlier in 1997 following relegation from the Premier League. He had been called up the England squad on the day of the move and it seemed quite a coup at the time. The signing of some relatively unknown striker – by the name of Kevin Phillips – the same summer had not been greeted with the same fanfare. The fact Clark had signed from Newcastle, whose love for that club was no mystery, meant views on the signing were mixed among the fans. However, his performances and goals en route to that fateful play-off final defeat by Charlton Athletic in 1998, and then the promotion campaign of 1999, won round the majority of the fans. The words ‘Clarkie is a Mackem’ even appeared on the front cover of Sunderland fanzine A Love Supreme.
At the time the t-shirt faux pas news broke I was at my most partisan and took it as a personal insult. He had pissed right on our cheesy chips and, just to top it off, we had been paying for the beer. I had not been pleased when we signed him and for months I was suspicious of his motivation but against my better judgement I had let my guard down and put my trust in him. I think the feeling that I, along with thousands of others, had been duped fuelled the levels of resentment.
I like to think now I’d take the news a bit better but at the time I was furious. I couldn’t believe a player could be so stupid or disrespectful to the fans who turned up to see him play every week. I doubt I’d be so disappointed now, as my expectations of players are pretty low, and I’m not sure if I take it quite as seriously. Despite that, just seeing him on TV skipping across the turf 15 years on as Birmingham City avoided relegation brought back all those feelings of resentment. Perhaps I just wanted him to fail miserably so we could mock him as he’d mocked us.
Luckily by the time I saw him in the Birmingham dugout when we visited St. Andrews earlier in the season, my anger had abated and I was more reflective on the whole affair. I’d realised by then I had to let it go, otherwise, he was right and I am indeed a Sad Mackem Bastard. I laugh about it now and the rage of my younger self. I am even a little thankful it was in 1999 so it was not labelled ‘banter’ as it would be now. That may have just pushed me over the edge.
Clark – who was promptly shipped out following the incident and spent another two seasons in the second tier with Fulham – has since said that he regrets the incident but would have had to leave that summer anyway as he could not play against Newcastle. If he had left then I think we could have accepted the reasoning and thanked him for his efforts. He still would have got plenty of abuse on his next visit to Sunderland but at least he would have been remembered with some level of fondness as the rest of the 1998/99 squad are, but once that t-shirt was worn there was no going back.
We went onto to finish seventh in the Premier League – in no small part thanks to the goals of Kevin Phillips – but I wonder what would have happened had he not worn that t-shirt and been persuaded to stay. Some people have underplayed his role in that promotion season but I think we were significantly better with him in the side. Maybe we would have even finished higher than seventh had he stayed. The manner of his departure disappointed me more than any other before, and probably since, but did it make any difference to the team? I guess we will never know.
By Kevin Ross