STEVE Clarke hailed Zoltan Gera’s ‘dream’ performance at the Stadium of Light.
The head coach was not short of options for man of the match in today’s 4-2 win at Sunderland – but insisted the Hungary star shaded the vote.
It is hard to imagine that Gera missed most of last season with a serious knee injury, such is the impact he has made this term.
He opened the scoring on Wearside with a stunning 25-yard strike – his third of the season – and Clarke was delighted with his overall display.
“For me, Zoltan was man of the match,” he said.
“He was outstanding.
“Zoltan played that No.10 position like a dream for us.
“The way we played and passed it, we kept getting him on the ball in good positions.
“It’s something we had spoken about before the game and thankfully it worked for us.”
Shane Long surged to the top of the Albion scoring charts with what appeared the simplest of goals a minute before the break – his fifth league strike of the season.
The Republic of Ireland international had the simple task of tapping into an empty net after Black Cats keeper Simon Mignolet fumbled Chris Brunt’s through-ball.
But Clarke insisted it was Long’s never-say-die attitude which prompted the mistake.
“It only becomes a gift if Shane closes down what looks an innocuous ball,” he reflected.
“Shane followed it in and obviously made their keeper take his eye off the ball. He got his break for doing that.
“But that’s what Shane does. He wants the impossible. He keeps chasing and chasing until he gets the breaks he deserves.”
Referee Mike Dean incensed Long by booking him for simulation in the 20th minute when he appeared to be tripped by John O’Shea, who had already been booked.
“From where I was, it looked like a free-kick to us,” said Clarke.
“The referee decided it was simulation.
“I haven’t seen it again so I can’t really comment, but I was disappointed Shane got booked for diving.
“I’d be very surprised if he dived there. I thought he’d gone past their player.”
Albion’s win on Wearside was made all the more impressive by them being without one of their main men, Youssouf Mulumbu, through injury.
Clarke feels the fact Albion have kept their upward momentum going despite losing key performers like Ben Foster, who remains sidelined, Claudio Yacob and Gareth McAuley in recent weeks shows the strength in depth he has at his disposal.
“That’s all credit to the players that go into the team,” he said.
“I didn’t just put anybody in today for Youssouf. I put in Chris Brunt, who is the club captain.
“He slotted in well and James Morrison dropped back into midfield.
“The players understand their role within the squad.
“We’ve spoken about it on a number of occasions this year.
“It’s no longer enough to have 11 good players. That won’t get you anywhere.
“You need a squad full of good players – and that’s what we’ve got.
“When everybody gets a chance to go into the game, they make a contribution.
“For example, Gabi Tamas only went on for three or four minutes at the end but was committed to what we’re trying to do.”
Clarke was also full of praise for Claudio Yacob, who produced another dominant display in his engine room.
“He’s been an outstanding signing for us,” he said.
“He was the type of midfield player I asked for when I sat down with Dan Ashworth after joining the club – and we were lucky to get him.
“He slipped under the radar a little bit but Dan had obviously got a few scouting reports on him.
“I watched six or seven DVDs on him and thought he would do a half-decent job for us.
“But he’s done much more than that.”
The one slight concern for Clarke on an otherwise satisfying day was the sight of Jonas Olsson carrying a knock at the end.
“Jonas limped off at full-time as he’d cramped up in his calf,” he added.
“We’ll assess him and see how he is.”