A man who made you so nervous he almost embodied the derby.
With the Derby looming the days seem to drag on longer and the nights become a futile attempt at getting some sleep. I thought things would get easier as I got older and that the importance of the game was based purely on playground pride amongst friends, surely as a "grown-up" I would have more important things to worry about...
Seemingly not. The playground friends have become work colleagues and the game still only serves to distract from what I really should be doing as apposed to worrying about if the lads will turn up this time...
However, at least for this moment I can channel this edginess and apprehension into this week's Cult Heroes piece and a Frenchman that crossed the North-East divide. Of course it is the man that divides opinion, a goalkeeper who could produce the sublime one moment only to succumb to the ridiculous the next, who else but the flamboyant Lionel
Olympique and Stade Lavallois before Peter Reid splashed out £200,000 to bring Perez to Roker Park as his reserve keeper in 1996.
It was unlikely that Sunderland fans were to see much of the their new signing due to the impressive form of another new face Tony Coton, a recent recruit from Manchester United. Coton had made a number of eye-catching performances before his career was cut short after his leg was broke in no fewer than five places in a game against
Southampton in October of 1996. Cue Lionel taking to the pitch to make his debut but unable to prevent Sunderland succumbing to a 3-0 defeat.
Despite his initial disappointing debut Perez was quick to catch the eye of the Roker Park crowd and not always based upon his performances. It is unlikely that the famous old ground had ever witnessed quite an eccentric and flamboyant goalkeeper at any stage across its long and storied history. Lionel was certainly one of a kind, with his wild, unkempt hair and trademark short-sleeved shirts the colourful fella from France was quick to endear himself to a young and impressionable fan like myself at the time.
Perez was the kind of goalkeeper that seemed to thrive on the ridiculous with a "why save this with my hands when I can stop it with my legs" kind of attitude that must have infuriated the older and wiser fans around me on the Roker End at the time. However as an eleven year old, I bloody loved the bloke and his attempts at making the highlight reel when a routine stop would have been preferable.
There is no doubting that Lionel was a superb shot-stopper but it was his decision making that would prove to be his downfall time and time again and would prevent him from really establishing himself as a top goalkeeper. Eric Cantona's famous goal at Old Trafford, which has gone on to become a Sky Sports favourite for video montages, being a prime example with Perez wandering into no-mans land gifting Cantona the opportunity of the lob. Take nothing away from Eric though, it was a superb finish.
Perez could be perfectly summed up in the run up to THAT Play-Off Final in 1998. It was his stunning double-save in the Semi-Final against Sheffield United which helped earn Sunderland a place at Wembley however his performance in the big game itself left a lot to be desired, especially in the eyes of Peter Reid, who seemingly lost
all confidence in his keeper and made him surplus to requirements following the Wembley disappointment.
Kenny Dalglish offered Lionel an olive-branch in the form of a move North to arch-rivals Newcastle United, a deal which suited Perez as he was settled in the area at the time. However he has since revealed that he never quite got over the disappointment of being axed from Sunderland and fell out of love with the game, a state of mind which he believes attributed to his poor showing on Tyneside and subsequent unceremonious dismissal from St. James' as well:
"I wasn't good at Newcastle, though. When Kenny Dalglish was sacked, that didn't help. But I can't say anything else because I wasn't good. I was really, really, really bad. I lost all my football. I just didn't know why Peter Reid didn't want to keep me. I was thinking: ‘why, why, why?' all of the time."
Lionel would eventually regain his love for the game lower down the leagues with spells at Scunthorpe, Cambridge and Stevenage before his career came to an end following a horrific leg break.
Sure Lionel was widely unpredictable and thus not exactly constitutive to a solid and effective defence but it cannot be argued that he was not also as entertaining as he was nerve-wracking and for that, Lionel, I salute you.