Failed Leeds United prospect plays starring role in late League One play-off drama

Leeds United academy product Jack Clarke shifted the destiny of loan club Sunderland with a vital assist in the League One play-off semi-final on Monday night.
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Tipped to play a significant role in the future of the club, the York-born attacker was once a youngster to watch at Elland Road before a health scare at the Riverside Stadium midway through his breakthrough season halted the youngster's rampant progress in February 2019.

After the Whites' Championship promotion bid was crushed by Derby County, Leeds sold Clarke to Tottenham Hotspur for a healthy £10m before taking the 18-year-old back on loan for their second bite at the Premier League cherry.

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Clarke's contribution the following season was limited, though, and Spurs boss José Mourinho recalled him five months later due to a lack of playing time before shipping him out to Championship side QPR, where Clarke made his debut in a 1-0 win against Leeds before largely being confined to the bench for the duration of his stay at the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium.

After his career began with so much promise at Thorp Arch, Clarke must have felt immensely frustrated when, in the 2020/2021 season, another promising opportunity proved a false dawn as his loan spell at Stoke City was cut short by an achilles injury.

This week, though, Clarke finally got a taste of the success that seemed all-but-guaranteed during his time in the Leeds United academy. Since joining Sunderland on loan in January, it has proved a case of 'third time lucky' for Clarke at the Stadium of Light, as Clarke quickly put the disappointments at QPR and Stoke behind him with an impressive stay in the North East, with the Yorkshireman helping the Black Cats climb to a fifth-placed finish in the League One table to set up a play-off semi-final against his boyhood club's rivals, Sheffield Wednesday.

After notching 17 league appearances in Sunderland's promotion charge, Clarke was trusted by boss Alex Neil with getting the job over the line by handing the attacker, still just 21 years old, a pair of starts in the two-legged showdown with the Owls.

Former Leeds United attacker Jack Clarke on the ball during Sunderland's play-off semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday. Pic: Michael Regan.Former Leeds United attacker Jack Clarke on the ball during Sunderland's play-off semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday. Pic: Michael Regan.
Former Leeds United attacker Jack Clarke on the ball during Sunderland's play-off semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday. Pic: Michael Regan.
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The Tyneside outfit took a 1-0 lead into Monday's second leg at Hillsborough, where Sheffield striker Lee Gregory's 74th minute goal put the teams on level terms and sent the tie to the wire.

Though Wednesday looked the more likely team to snatch a victory, a moment of brilliance by Clarke sealed a win for Sunderland. In stoppage-time, Clarke received the ball on the left wing, drifted easily past Owls' defender Jordan Storey and drilled the ball through the heart of the six yard box where the charging Patrick Roberts buried the ball in the net to send the travelling support barmy.

Clarke's assist sets up a League One play-off final against Wycombe Wanderers, to be played at Wembley on Saturday May 21.