Chris Young column: Fletcher faces crucial period in Sunderland career

Sunderland's Steven Fletcher.
Sunderland's Steven Fletcher.
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SUNDERLAND’S sole Scot has already had a taste of independent isolation.

Gus Poyet is not afraid to be brutal in his selection decisions and leave a player cut adrift in the stands, but it was some fall from grace for Steven Fletcher to be axed not just from the starting XI but the matchday 18 against Spurs.

There was a precedent though.

For Sunderland’s most important game for a generation last March, Jozy Altidore found himself reduced to the role of Wembley cheerleader after flopping at the Emirates eight days earlier.

Given Altidore’s background of just one Premier League goal following his £7million arrival from AZ Alkmaar, it was naturally viewed as the bell tolling on the American’s Sunderland career.

But there was no sulking from Altidore; nor did Poyet close the door on the misfiring frontman.

Altidore was remodelled as an impact substitute during the run-in - crucially earning the match-winning penalty at Chelsea - and returned to Wearside this summer both as a cult hero and a noticeably more content fella.

Fletcher will look to follow suit, and he is certainly not the kind of character who will propel the toys from the pram.

He will know too that regardless of Connor Wickham’s five-goal haul at the end of last season, and his positive displays so far this time around, that the central striker position remains very much up for grabs.

But there is no escaping that these next few months are HUGE in Fletcher’s career at Sunderland.

If the £12million frontman cannot return to the kind of form he showed during his maiden campaign on Wearside, then there have to be question marks over whether Sunderland will look to cash-in in January.

Poyet will certainly give him the opportunities to get back up and running.

Ever since arriving at the Stadium of Light 11 months ago, Poyet has been desperate to harness Fletcher’s predatory abilities and while the 27-year-old has struggled to click this season, he has undoubtedly looked more interested than the languid figure from last time around.

A first pre-season in three years has done him good.

However, the only currency in which Fletcher is valued is goals.

He is not a targetman who will provide for others. Neither is he a whippet who will stretch a defence with his pace. And as was seen at QPR, he doesn’t always help to relieve the pressure by holding the ball up when Sunderland are under the cosh.

Fletcher is a poacher in its purest sense and when the opposition net isn’t bulging regularly, his contribution is inevitably questioned.

So too has been whether he fits into the 4-1-4-1 system which Poyet has implemented and will largely persevere with while he is at the Sunderland helm.

Fletcher’s healthy goal return at Sunderland came when he had Stephane Sessegnon just behind him in that number 10 role.

Now, for most of that campaign, Sessegnon was infuriatingly inconsistent; a shadow of the player who had mesmerised the previous year.

But Sessegnon distracted defences at least.

Until Sunderland’s two box-to-box midfielders can be equally influential, then the lone striker will have different opportunities to feed upon - chances which last year suited Wickham far more.

Fletcher will have to adapt to that style of play if further opportunities for both him and Altidore are forthcoming, should Wickham be unable to build on that crucial five-goal haul from the Great Escape.

But what Fletcher needs more than anything else is a goal.

A campaign hijacked by persistent injury troubles has clearly played on his confidence levels.

The longer the barren run - which stretches back to December’s 2-2 draw at Cardiff - continues, the more tempted Sunderland will surely become to sell up and consider an alternative either in January or next summer.

There is no lack of interest in Fletcher. Both Hull and Celtic are long-term admirers of the former Wolves frontman.

Sunderland would struggle to recoup their hefty investment from the summer of 2012, but in today’s domestic market - when struggling teams are desperate in the January window - a sale around the £8-9m mark is not unreasonable.

Fletcher will be keen to avoid that ebay-esque departure.

He is settled at Sunderland and is genuinely eager to demonstrate that his purple patch at the start of his Sunderland career was not a one-off.

But he needs to get back among the goals... and fast.

If he does get back on the bench at Turf Moor on Saturday, it would be an opportune moment to net against his former club.

THE STADIUM of Light’s reception for the families of Liam Sweeney and John Alder last weekend reinforced how the North East’s tribalism has been broken down by tragedy.

The £33,000 raised by Sunderland fans following the MH17 disaster was a gesture of such warmth; such open-mindedness and such generosity, that few words can do it justice.

There has been a similar reaction from Wearside this week to the news that Newcastle winger Jonas Gutierrez is receiving treatment for testicular cancer.

Sunderland were actually offered the services of Gutierrez last January, before he joined Norwich on loan.

At the time, Gus Poyet felt that Gutierrez was too much of a risk, given the scrutiny which his arrival from St James’s Park would ignite.

On the football field, Poyet was perhaps right. It’s an experience Jack Colback faces if the Magpies’ struggles continue.

But the past few months have reinforced that when it comes to far weightier matters, the dividing lines in this part of the world are not so black and white after all.

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