Chris Young column: Why Steven Fletcher could be THE key player for Sam Allardyce

Steven Fletcher in action for Sunderland during their 2-2 draw at the Stadium of Light against West Ham United. Picture by FRANK REID
Steven Fletcher in action for Sunderland during their 2-2 draw at the Stadium of Light against West Ham United. Picture by FRANK REID
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For too long, Steven Fletcher has prompted more groans than cheers.

Just over three years since Sunderland splashed out a whopping £14million on the striker, Fletcher remains a tale of a player who evidently has all the required talent to thrive in the Premier League, yet has struggled to live up to the billing consistently.

We’ve been here before with Fletcher, of course. One swallow doesn’t make a summer.

Injuries have not helped Fletcher, in fairness.

Few frontmen would have thrived in a team that annually toils either.

Yet other than the derby – where the Scot has regularly looked like a man possessed – he has provided too much ammunition for those looking for a scapegoat.

Had Sunderland taken a hefty loss on their investment during the summer and offloaded a player entering the final 12 months of his contract, then there would have been few complaints.

With Dick Advocaat keen to bring in a targetman (as he was never able to do) both parties looked like they would benefit from a fresh start.

But, in the space of a fortnight, that has changed.

After the boost in confidence stemming from five goals in three games for club and country, Fletcher could perversely now be THE key figure under Sam Allardyce.

We’ve been here before with Fletcher, of course.

One swallow doesn’t make a summer.

He scored braces against Stoke and Crystal Palace last Autumn. The next goal didn’t arrive until May...

An excellent performance – and his display against West Ham really was as good as he’d played in a red and white shirt – will need to be followed up by several more before public opinion sways permanently.

However, Fletcher has been proving his doubters wrong on the international stage north of the border with his last three outings for Gordon Strachan’s side.

Indeed, prior to the West Ham clash, Advocaat had challenged Fletcher to perform as he did during Scotland’s 3-2 defeat to Germany last month. It clearly worked.

The calibre of that display has not gone unnoticed by Allardyce, who watched it as a pundit for Irish television.

Allardyce is mindful of the inactivity of Jermain Defoe over the last three games and is pondering whether he can use Sunderland’s most natural finisher in a more orthodox 4-4-2, although that prompts a host of fresh questions over where it would leave Fabio Borini, Ola Toivonen and Jeremain Lens.

But whether Allardyce persists with a 4-3-3 or reverts to 4-4-2, it’s a fair bet that an orthodox centre-forward will lead the line, particularly considering the style of play the manager has adopted at his former clubs.

It wouldn’t be an earth-shattering surprise to see Carlton Cole come in on a Bosman to boost Sunderland’s options in the striker department.

The unquestionable commitment and physicality could also feasibly see Danny Graham used in a similar manner to the Kevin Davies battering ram from Allardyce’s days at Bolton.

But when Fletcher is in the right frame of mind, he is a goalscorer.

Can the same genuinely be said of Cole and Graham?

If Allardyce is to lead Sunderland to survival, he needs one of his frontmen to get into double figures.

Delve into the goal statistics from recent seasons and it provides an immediate explanation for Sunderland’s struggles.

Fletcher and Connor Wickham joint top-scored last season with just five each in the league. The year before Adam Johnson (a winger) was top of the pile with eight.

And in 2012-13 – the first of Sunderland’s three successive near-misses with relegation – Fletcher, in his maiden campaign on Wearside, got into double figures with 11, but only one of those arrived after January.

The ex-Wolves man’s ankle injury coincided with the slump that saw Sunderland sink down the table and Martin O’Neill pay with his job.

Those sides who successfully beat the drop without having to resort to nail-biting last-minute escapes, invariably do so by boasting a striker who can net a ratio around the one-in-three mark.

Defoe has the potential to do that – despite his poor misses against Spurs and Bournemouth – but Allardyce will have to succeed where his two predecessors failed in incorporating the 33-year-old into a convincing system.

With minimal time to work with his full squad due to the international break too, it would be a surprise if Allardyce immediately turns to Defoe in a new set-up for his opening game in charge at West Brom too.

Fletcher will surely remain in that lone central striker role and get the chance to lay down a marker.

If Allardyce can get the best out of him consistently, then that really would be testament to his impact in the dug-out.