TO THOSE who do not comprehend the North-east's special language, and that must mean many, the significance of a message on a T-shirt worn by footballer Lee Clark last month, will lack great significance.
It read: "Sad mackem bastards." The first and last words offer some clue that this is not a tribute. In Sunderland though, in its own special context, it's about as off-message as you'll get. Way off the scale of blasphemy. Bad enough last night for Sunderland Football Club to put Clark on the transfer list - despite having paid out a club record pounds 2.5m for him and made him club captain.
To the uninitiated, "mackem" is Newcastle people's word for Sunderland people. No precise translation but in the way Clark used it, it's not meant to flatter. Clark is from Newcastle. He wore the black and white stripes of Newcastle United before (unthinkably, say some) leaving the club to wear the red and white of Sunderland. That might offer explanation of his dress sense.
The fact that millions of pounds of a football club's money could rest one T-shirt appeared to have passed the North-east by last night.
Some say the shirt wasn't even Clark's. It seems a group of Newcastle fans, down at Wembley to watch Newcastle play Manchester United last month in the FA cup final, spotted the player from a taxi, jumped out and asked him to wear it for a joke.
No matter, said Sunderland FC manager Peter Reid, a Scouser who knows about these matters of regional identity. "My first priority must lie with the fans," he said gravely yesterday.
"In the light of recent events I feel that Lee may not have their full backing."
Even Clark seemed to accept the consequences of his grim blasphemy. The 26-year-old who has been a key figure in Sunderland's return to the top flight, despite breaking his leg on the opening day of last season, said: "This season is obviously an important one for the club and it is essential that the team receive the full backing of their supporters.
"I have to accept that my presence could be an unsettling factor and with this in mind I have reluctantly agreed to go on the transfer list."
Maybe he just wants to be free of a club that he will have been taught to hate as a young Geordie boy.
He certainly wasn't making much of one irony which helps turns this melodrama into even more of a farce. The fact that Sunderland T-shirts declaring "Clarkie is a mackem" went down a bomb when he was scoring goals for the club.
Neither was there as much smirking as you might expect up the A1 at Newcastle last night. "He's only himself to blame," said one observer. "If he'd been a brilliant player for us we might have been more bothered." For footballers in these parts, life's tough.
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