Chris Young’s Sunderland big-match verdict: Striking decision could be key to a tricky tie

Lee Clark in action for Sunderland.
Lee Clark in action for Sunderland.
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IN THE days before mobile phone cameras, Twitter and Facebook, the private life of a footballer was ... well largely, private.

Technology scuppered many of the off-field shenanigans which have now gone into footballing folklore.

But when players were caught out in those days, they did it in some style.

There isn’t a better Exhibit A than Lee Clark.

The then Sunderland midfielder may have only sported THAT t-shirt for a matter of seconds, yet it was sufficient time for the Kodaks to click and capture a grinning Clark in an unforgiveable pose.

Clark has subsequently claimed that he would have left Sunderland anyway that summer.

But that moment of madness forever tainted Clark’s reputation on Wearside. The two seasons when the ex-Newcastle United man was the heartbeat of Peter Reid’s midfield were instantly lost in the backlash to that treachery.

Rightly, Clark remains full of contrition for the act which saw him immediately transfer-listed and sold to Fulham.

That won’t prevent an outpouring of vitriol from the thousands travelling to St Andrews tonight though.

Clark knows he is in for a rough ride.

But doubtless he will be desperate for his side to react against those taunts and silence the away end.

The current Birmingham outfit is unrecognisable from the one which dropped out of the Premier League three years ago. That’s the price to be paid of mid-table Championship anonymity.

After managing to save their skins in the second tier with the most dramatic of final days last time around, Clark won’t be casting his gaze too high this season.

A failure to hold onto victory against 10-man Brentford on Saturday, saw the Blues take their points tally to a modest five points from four games.

But tonight is different.

This is a chance for Clark and his players to steal a few headlines again.

The hosts will be fired up and are likely to provide a sterner challenge than the home encounters Sunderland faced in the opening two rounds of last season’s competition against MK Dons and Peterborough - albeit they made desperately hard work of the former.

It’s a tie fraught with danger.

But Gus Poyet faced a crash-course last season in what the cup competitions mean to Sunderland’s faithful.

He won’t be following the lead of Clark’s boyhood heroes by taking the cups with a pinch of salt.

Inevitably, there will be changes and there needs to be to keep those waiting for a Premier League opportunity suitably sharp.

New boys Costel Pantilimon, Jordi Gomez and Billy Jones all require a run-out and will do.

Likewise, Liam Bridcutt and possibly Charis Mavrias and Valentin Roberge would benefit from competitive action.

But the most intriguing selection will be how Poyet tinkers with his attacking options.

Adam Johnson should be available again after missing Sunday’s draw against Manchester United through illness, yet Poyet will surely be keen to hand Will Buckley another opportunity to impress.

But where does that leave Connor Wickham?

The England Under-21 striker has produced a couple of decent outings on the left, but he is clearly far more effective down the middle.

Does Wickham get the opportunity to shine in that role tonight?

Does Steven Fletcher, who clearly needs the confidence boost which stems from a goal, continue leading the line?

Or does Poyet even turn to Jozy Altidore to get a much-needed run-out after the American looked sharp in his cameo from the bench against United?

There are merits to each option.

But it may be the crucial decision for Poyet to get right, if Sunderland are to take a few more steps on the road back to Wembley.

Verdict: Away win