SUNDERLAND angrily denied yesterday that their skipper and longest-serving player, Michael Gray, had slapped in a written transfer request.

As the Sunderland players continued their preparations for Sunday's derby clash with arch-rivals Newcastle United at the Stadium of Light the club was shocked by reports that the 27-year-old full back wanted a move.

A statement said: "The club has not received a written transfer request from Michael and in fact has had recent discussions with his agent regarding an enhanced contract."

One Sunday tabloid story said that Gray was ready to follow in the footsteps of Scottish international Don Hutchison, now with West Ham United, and England midfielder Gavin McCann, by asking for a move. Middlesbrough and West Ham were said to be watching the "developing situation".

But Gray is in his testimonial year at Sunderland, the reward for ten years' service with his home-town club, and is trying to arrange a big game this summer with Glasgow Celtic at the Stadium of Light.

Gray, who joined the Wearsiders straight from school, signing up as a trainee after being released by Manchester United's School of Excellence, is the only remaining player who was on the books when Peter Reid became manager six years ago.

The latest speculation will not impress Reid as he concentrates on getting his troops prepared for their biggest home game of the season.

Meanwhile, new striker Patrick Mboma, who looks like being thrown into the cauldron on Sunday, has been told to remain calm in the white-hot derby atmosphere by Teessider Darren Williams, who has first-hand experience of the passions which are aroused when the two teams meet.

Williams said: "Derby games are all about emotions and pride - it will get over-heated and people will make rash tackles.

"All I can say to Patrick is to take the tackles and not to lose his head because he will hurt them more by scoring a goal than having a go back at them."

Williams, who has played in defence and in midfield in 15 League and Cup starts for Sunderland this season, has knocked down reports that he might be tempted to move on in search of regular first team football.

The 24-year-old England B international was linked with a £1m move to promotion-chasing First Division club Birmingham City recently but has stressed that he is happy on Wearside.

He is bound to be involved against Newcastle, and could find himself in the starting line-up if Swedish central defender Joachim Bjorklund is still troubled by the groin injury which forced his late substitution in the 1-0 win at Derby ten days ago.

* FIFA president Sepp Blatter has praised Sunderland striker Niall Quinn for his plans to raise £1million for charity.

''I have been very touched by the level of support I have received,'' Quinn admitted. ''In his letter, Mr Blatter expressed his personal thanks to me for what he called a unique and unselfish gesture.

Read more about Sunderland AFC here.