Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Main man so vital

GOAL.. Sunderland's Steven Fletcher celebrates after scoring his sides second goal against Reading.
GOAL.. Sunderland's Steven Fletcher celebrates after scoring his sides second goal against Reading.
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THERE IS clearly a Lazarus element to Sunderland’s medical department.

A fortnight after Lee Cattermole sprang from the depths of the treatment table to feature in Sunderland’s starting line-up, Steven Fletcher did likewise last night after Martin O’Neill had barely given the Scotland striker a prayer of recovering from the ankle strain sustained at Norwich.

Fletcher spent yesterday morning training in solitary confinement with Sunderland’s physios, while the rest of his team-mates worked as an ensemble.

Crucially though, while the gamble to play Cattermole back-fired so spectacularly against QPR, the roll of the dice on Fletcher paid huge dividends in a game where Sunderland had to strike it lucky.

It was perhaps harsh on Connor Wickham to be dropped to the bench after coming in from the cold to shine against Norwich and Chelsea.

But Fletcher is Sunderland’s main man up front.

For all the encouraging signs from Wickham and the tangible proof that he does offer genuine back-up and competition for Fletcher, O’Neill could hardly ignore the availability of his top scorer.

Neither was O’Neill likely to abandon his ploy of using Stephane Sessegnon in the hole and suddenly deploy a front two in an encounter that was hardly conducive to experimentation.

O’Neill stuck to his principles and saw Fletcher grab a priceless seventh of the season.

James McClean’s third minute strike was a massive one in quelling the tension both on the terraces and on the field, and denied Reading the opportunity to build their fragile confidence by safely navigating the early stages.

But McClean’s goal didn’t completely banish Sunderland’s nerves.

After a rampant opening five minutes from the Black Cats, they gradually allowed Reading a route back into the game, primarily through set-pieces, and Brian McDermott’s punchless side enjoyed a moderately decent spell.

But Fletcher gave Sunderland that crucial cushion of breathing space and provided that platform for a second half where they were able to sit back comfortably and hit the Royals on the break.

Fletcher did what all good strikers should do, he got a half a sniff of a goal and took it with the most elegant of back-heeled flicks beyond the nervy Adam Federici.

The Scotland international contributed more than just the goal though.

He was physically robust enough to dominate the aerial battle and hold the ball up astutely on the counter-attack, while he also demonstrated some neat woodwork with a superb turn away from Adrian Mariappa on the right-hand corner flag which earned the former Newcastle transfer target a booking.

Fletcher clearly played longer than O’Neill would have envisaged.

He was waning physically during the final 30 minutes and Wickham would have been introduced had there not been a procession of players towards the treatment room.

Yet Fletcher continued to provide a goal threat to the visitors, almost weaving his way impossibly through the Reading back-line before losing his feet in the penalty area.

Fletcher’s goal prowess and role as Sunderland’s figurehead has never been in question since his £12million arrival from Wolves though.

The problem has been the lack of service from those around him.

But last night, there were a few modest signs that Sunderland are beginning to progress on the learning curve.

It wasn’t always slick interplay into the striker’s feet, but the Black Cats are starting to get players into the box alongside him - four red and white shirts in the area for Fletcher’s goal.

The rejuvenated McClean was particularly willing to look for Fletcher’s flick-ons, while Adam Johnson is beginning to tuck inside when the ball is on the opposite flank.

Sunderland are also mixing up the delivery to Fletcher, rather than just moving the ball wide, with Craig Gardner producing several well-weighted long balls into the frontman’s feet.

The caveat is Sunderland were playing a Reading side who were arguably the worst Premier League outfit to visit the Stadium of Light in several years.

Had Simon Mignolet not produced a stunning late save to deny Noel Hunt, the Royals could feasibly have forced a dramatic late charge on the Sunderland goal.

But in truth, Sunderland couldn’t have hand-picked better opponents to face in a do-or-die showdown.

Reading’s attacking ploys were limited to the set piece delivery of Nicky Shorey or punts down the channels.

Without the beef of groin injury victim Jason Roberts, strike pair Noel Hunt and Adam Le Fondre enjoyed little joy out of those launches forward.

The potency of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney will offer Sunderland a threat at the extreme opposite end of the scale on Saturday.

Neither will Fletcher enjoy such licence from an attacking sense against a United back-line that will be boosted by the return of Nemanja Vidic.

But Sunderland can at least head to Old Trafford in buoyant mood and without the desperate need to somehow register a point from thin air.

Last night genuinely was a “must win”, not so much to move Sunderland out of the relegation zone, but to ensure that modest achievement of averaging a point per game.

The trip to Southampton in 10 days time holds far more importance for the Black Cats than Saturday’s game.

But Sunderland proved they can hold their nerve against one of their relegation peers and if they can do likewise against St Mary’s, Wearside will breathe a little easier still.