A NOT-SO-SECRET weapon lies in Sunderland’s armoury in their battle to avoid the drop.
Among Sunderland’s ranks exists a player who has netted double figures in each of the last three Premier League campaigns.
But if the Black Cats are to emerge from below the water line by May 11, they need to reap more from Steven Fletcher and maximise the potential of the Scottish striker.
Relegation scraps are habitually decided by those sides who can boast a player capable of finding the net when the pressure cooker begins to omit steam.
That one key individual is pivotal when determining the difference between sides separated by a fag paper.
Even though 13th placed Hull City boast a seven-point buffer with basement boys Sunderland, the bottom half is much of a muchness when it comes to quality.
Gus Poyet’s side had edged proceedings against Stoke before Kevin Friend’s bungling and despite an awful first half display at Hull earlier this month, the Tigers struggled to create any clear-cut opportunities.
As the Uruguayan told the Echo a fortnight ago: “I don’t think there is too much in it when it comes to the difference in the squads at the bottom of the table.”
But what is holding Sunderland back at the moment is their inability to find the net.
Only Crystal Palace can boast an inferior return than Sunderland’s haul of just eight goals in 12 top flight games this season.
Yes, Charlie Adam’s opening goal came against the run of play on Saturday, but Sunderland failed to make their domination count and that is a familiar story.
In fairness, Fletcher was presented with a golden opportunity to break the deadlock when Adam Johnson beat Stoke’s offside trap with a majestic ball over the top.
It took a deceptively smart save from Asmir Begovic to deny Fletcher, yet how many more presentable chances did Sunderland create?
Poyet’s side must make much, much more of the £12million frontman and give him that service he craves.
Arguably, other than Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke, Fletcher is the most lethal frontman at any of Sunderland’s fellow sides in the bottom half.
Norwich’s big money attacking recruits have flopped, Andy Carroll’s injury problems have piled the pressure on Sam Allardyce and Darren Bent is a shadow of the arch-predator from his Wearside days.
How many other frontmen among those in the bottom half are likely to reach double figures by the end of the season?
Fletcher needs service though if he is to prove the difference.
The 26-year-old’s two goals this season have both come from headers – one from a beautiful Jack Colback cross in his return at Crystal Palace and the other in the derby.
Poyet has clearly realised that Sunderland need to deliver more crosses for Fletcher and show greater ambition going forwards.
Both full-backs at Stoke were operating as auxiliary wingers, while there was a helping hand from the midfield to add numbers in the area.
But the onus of responsibility is on those at the peak of Sunderland’s midfield to be cuter when it comes to supplying Fletcher.
Poyet signalled last week that his long-term hope to is to deploy two orthodox frontmen and claimed it was possible for Fletcher and Jozy Altidore to work in tandem.
But in the short-term, it will surely be one or the other.
It would be a major surprise if Sunderland suddenly went gung-ho with two strikers in a trip to Aston Villa, followed by back-to-back home games against Chelsea and Spurs.
Sunderland have also looked a far more cohesive outfit this season with three players in the middle of the park.
They don’t have the physical specimens in midfield to play an orthodox 4-4-2.
That puts the onus on Johnson and Emanuele Giaccherini to both create and score themselves.
The advanced positions of the full-backs allowed the two widemen to push infield 10 yards at the Britannia and there were encouraging signs before Friend’s intervention forced Poyet to sacrifice Giaccherini.
But Sunderland need some concrete contributions in their current predicament.
Close shaves or promise are no good for a side who once more find themselves propping up the Premier League table.
Sunderland need goals and they have in their midst a proven scorer.
Now they need to start feeding him.