TWO-AND-A-HALF months ago, Steven Fletcher was all smiles after netting a brace during Sunderland’s opening pre-season friendly.
Speaking to Fletcher afterwards, the Scot cut a far more contented figure than the one who – by his own admission – spent the whole of last season struggling for fitness, form and confidence.
He sensed this was a fresh start to get his career back on track.
There was a stark contrast in Fletcher’s body language and thoughts at the weekend. He was spiky and full of testosterone.
The celebration for his first goal since December 28 was an aggressive release of frustration and a pointed answer to the criticism which has been significant over the last year or so.
And even afterwards when Fletcher spoke to journalists, the adrenaline was clearly still flowing.
Repeatedly through the interview, he indicated his displeasure at being dropped after the loss at QPR in August.
There was no hiding how irritated the £12million frontman had been with the opening exchanges of the campaign.
After failing to find the net in the first three games, many supporters picked up where they left off last season in questioning Fletcher’s attitude, whether Sunderland should have cashed in on him and if there was a place for him in the blueprint laid out by Gus Poyet.
The faith of the Sunderland manager seemed to have eroded too.
In his year at the helm, Poyet has always been a big fan of Fletcher and given the former Burnley striker plenty of chances to rediscover his goalscoring touch.
But it was a big statement from Poyet to relegate Fletcher from both the starting XI and the matchday squad for the visit of Tottenham three weeks ago.
Since then, there has even been talk of Fletcher returning to former club Wolves on loan – although the striker rubbished that speculation after his timely return to goalscoring form on Saturday.
Fletcher’s anger and irritation was understandable.
However, it was also a good thing.
Firstly, it showed that he cared.
If there had no reaction on the training ground from Fletcher to being dropped then Poyet really would have been concerned.
And secondly, Fletcher often strikes an impression of being too languid and laid-back. He perhaps needed the proverbial rocket up the backside.
Certainly, a fuming Fletcher equalled a superb Fletcher on Saturday after he produced his best performance in a Sunderland shirt since his first six months at the Stadium of Light under Martin O’Neill.
The two finishes were those of a predatory marksman, while the cross for Connor Wickham’s fifth-minute opener showed pinpoint accuracy after the determination of getting to the by-line.
It was the kind of pull-back which Sunderland’s strikers have been crying out for all season.
But it wasn’t Fletcher’s goals that necessarily caught the eye.
His touch was excellent, his hold-up and link-up play reliable, and he showed a tireless work-rate in tracking back during the second half when Sunderland were looking to sit on their lead.
Poyet’s decision to recall the 27-year-old to the starting line-up may have looked a strange one beforehand – given the strength of Sunderland’s performance against Swansea seven days earlier – but it proved to be a masterstroke.
Shifting Wickham to the left wing worked as well.
Using the 21-year-old out there is not ideal and there was a more natural shape around the Sunderland starting XI when Adam Johnson was on the left against Swansea and Wickham was down the middle.
But when he is given licence to step inside off the flank, Wickham offers a much-needed additional presence in the box to the lone frontmen.
It’s not a Quinn-Phillips traditional strike partnership, but at least Sunderland have got two players up there hungry to score goals.
If both can get into double figures this season, that will take the Black Cats a long way towards getting out of harm’s reach.
Wickham also has the power and pace to threaten when given the opportunity to come inside off the left flank – emphasised in stunning fashion for the killer third goal.
The former Ipswich man was a runaway steam train and not even the bulk of Ryan Shawcross could stop him. Had a Manchester City or Chelsea player collected possession in their own half, charged to the far side of the six-yard box and laid the ball on a plate, the clip would have been constantly re-run over the last 48 hours.
Thankfully, that third goal spared Sunderland the anxiety of a late Stoke charge for an equaliser.
It made the dogged defensive work done by Sunderland’s back-line during the second half all worthwhile.
After an open, entertaining first half when both sides had been positive, Sunderland shut up shop after the interval, in a bid to preserve their advantage.
They did it superbly. While Sunderland’s defending was certainly suspect for Charlie Adam’s 23rd-minute equaliser – John O’Shea caught in particular after backing off the Scot – the Black Cats were faultless at the back in the second half.
Both Billy Jones and Patrick van Aanholt kept dangermen Oussama Assaidi and Marko Arnautovic under wraps – after Sunderland were fortunate to see in-form Victor Moses limp off – while Santiago Vergini demonstrated emphatically that he now can handle the physicality of the Premier League at centre-half.
Fit-again Wes Brown may have to bide his time to earn a recall if Vergini maintains the form shown in his last two outings.
Stoke never really had a sniff during the second half and once Sunderland had introduced some fresh legs into their tiring midfield – just as the Potters were beginning to find space there – the opportunity opened up on the counter-attack.
After Fletcher’s second goal secured victory, it made it just about as good an afternoon as Poyet could have wished for.
The two big question marks hanging over Sunderland have been removed – strikers scoring goals in the Premier League, plus the Black Cats securing that elusive maiden top-flight victory of the campaign.
Make no mistake, if Sunderland had entered the international break without a win to their name, it would have been an uncomfortable fortnight.
Sunderland’s progress under Poyet would have been scrutinised, while there would have been widespread predictions of another nailbiting fight against the drop.
Now though, eight points from seven games – only one of which has ended in defeat – looks a solid start.
Sunderland had already proved they were hard to beat, but now they can take the confidence stemming from victory into tough games against Southampton and Arsenal.
Just as importantly, their top finisher is once again doing what he does best.
SUNDERLAND: Mannone, Jones, O’Shea, Vergini, van Aanholt, Cattermole, Larsson (Rodwell 71), Gomez (Bridcutt 71), Buckley (Johnson 60), Wickham, Fletcher. Subs not used: Pantilimon, Brown, Altidore, Mavrias. Booked: Jones (64), van Aanholt (67), Fletcher (69)
STOKE: Begovic, Bardsley, Wilson, Shawcross, Muniesa, Whelan (Bojan 70), N’Zonzi, Adam, Moses (Assaidi 18), Arnautovic, Crouch (Walters 78). Subs not used: Sorensen, Pieters, Huth, Ireland. Booked: Muniesa (27), Assaidi (63), Bardsley (66), Bojan (90)
Attendance: 42,713. Referee: Neil Swarbrick