ALEX NEIL is happy with the improvement in Jack Clarke’s play in the last couple of months – but the Sunderland boss has challenged the winger to improve his goalscoring return in the crucial final five games of the season.

Clarke has made a positive impression since moving to Wearside on loan from Tottenham in the January window, featuring in 13 matches as the Black Cats have hauled themselves back into a play-off position ahead of tomorrow’s home game with Shrewsbury Town.

However, he has only found the net once, in the dying seconds of last month’s 3-1 home win over Fleetwood, and for all that he has made some telling contributions cutting in from the left-hand side, Neil admits that is a statistic that needs to change if he keeps finding himself in goalscoring positions in the final third.

“I think there have been some home matches that have been relatively tight where he’s been a good outlet for us,” said the Sunderland boss. “He gets us up the pitch and he can go either way. He’s probably been coming in on his right side more recently and maybe needs to mix it up a little bit more, but he’s dynamic and direct.

“He can take people on one-for-one, which is obviously a good strength to have, and he’s been a threat for us. He’s missed a few key chances, and I think that’s the next stage for him. He just needs to be that bit more clinical in front of goal.

“I think there’s been a few games recently – Lincoln, in particular, is one that sticks in the mind – where he had a golden opportunity, and they’re the moments we’ve got to capitalise on. But, in the main, I think his appetite for the work that he needs to do and his willingness to be a threat for us and take us up the pitch, he’s done well.”

Clarke arrived on Wearside having barely kicked a ball in the previous six months, with his only appearances in the first half of the season for Spurs having come as a substitute in the Europa Conference League and in three Papa John’s Trophy matches for the Under-21s.

Understandably, it took him time to get up the speed and rhythm of life in League One, but like his fellow winger, Patrick Roberts, Neil has been pleased with the way in which he has settled into things and built up his match sharpness.

“I think we’re far better placed with a lot of those players than we were ten games ago,” he said. “Realistically, we came in and Jack and Patrick hadn’t really played any football in the first half of the season.

“You had to then pick that up and get them into a state where they could play games regularly, and be at a fitness level that allowed them to do so. But, in the short term, not compromising by losing points and losing games isn’t an easy thing to do.

“Credit to them and the fitness team in terms of getting them up to speed as quickly as we have done.”

Meanwhile, Sunderland youngster Dan Neil has been shortlisted for the EFL League One Young Player of the Year award along with Portsmouth’s Gavin Bazanu and Fleetwood Town’s Paddy Lane.

Sunderland (probable, 4-2-3-1): Patterson; Winchester, Wright, Batth, Cirkin; Evans, O’Nien; Roberts, Pritchard, Clarke; Stewart.