FEW new signings can have written themselves so quickly into Sunderland’s history books as Steven Fletcher – just six weeks into his career at the Stadium of Light and already a record-breaker.
His match-winner against Wigan on Saturday, his fifth goal in four league games, made him the only footballer to score the first five league goals of a Sunderland campaign – something not achieved in over a century of competitive football; something unlikely to be eclipsed over the course of the next century.
It’s a quirky statistic but a pertinent one, too.
Because while some might prefer to concentrate on why his team-mates have not pitched in so far, the underlying relevance of the goal run is surely that Fletcher is now firmly established as a Sunderland favourite.
The Black Cats have been blessed with some superlative Premier League strikers – Kevin Phillips and Darren Bent are towering figures in terms of their goalscoring exploits – and that could easily have been intimidating to any new striker, especially a relegated one with a controversial £12million price tag around his neck.
But Fletcher’s confidence will be sky high after the start he has made and, with Sunderland fans having seen what he is capable of, they will go on to give him ever possible support.
If you have a great goalscorer and a great shot-stopper in your side, wisdom tells us you’re not going to be scrapping it out in the lower reaches of the Premier League.
And, in Fletcher at one end and Simon Mignolet at the other, Sunderland would appear to possess exactly that.
They needed them both to squeeze past a free-flowing Wigan side who started the game the better of the two sides.
Before a quarter of an hour was gone at the Stadium of Light, the Belgian keeper had been forced into two special saves – each a testimony to Mignolet’s reflexes and determination.
Jack Colback slipped in possession in the fourth minute, just outside his own area, allowing James McCarthy a sight of goal – the Wigan midfielder drifting past two opponents before his goal-bound shot was blocked at close range by Mignolet’s outstretched leg.
It was an excellent stop, but not in the same class as the one he made 10 minutes later when Jean Beausejour clipped in a cross from the left, John O’Shea failed to connect with a clearance and Arouna Kone smashed a shot goalwards at the far post.
This time it was point-blank range, but Mignolet’s positioning was perfect and he managed to get himself in the way of a shot which looked goal all the way.
In between those efforts, Shaun Maloney flashed a shot narrowly wide as Wigan built on an impressive start.
Sunderland were forced to make one change from the side which so nearly got all three points from West Ham the previous week.
Lee Cattermole’s absence was enforced as he served the first of a three-match ban for his Capital One Cup red card in midweek.
Adam Johnson is not a bad player to bring in as a replacement, but it became clear as the game went on that the England winger was well short of match fitness.
James McClean had less of an excuse as he laboured on the left flank, the Irishman currently blowing hot and cold and mixing moments of magic with exasperating efforts.
It was going forward where Sunderland failed to impress before the break, but it certainly wasn’t all bad.
Fletcher looked bright from the very start when he almost nipped into embarrass Wigan keeper Ali Al Habsi and there were occasional good passing moves from his team-mates without any end result.
The closest Sunderland came to scoring before half-time came in the 26th minute when Seb Larsson whipped in a corner from the left and O’Shea, at the near post, distracted the Wigan defence.
There was no touch from the defender and had a goal resulted it would have been credited to Larsson, but, luckily for the visitors, Ivan Ramis reacted quickly to volley the ball off the goal-line.
From the resulting left-wing corner, Sunderland went close again with Fletcher heading wide of Al Habsi’s right-hand post from eight yards.
But the Black Cats were not able to build on this moment of momentum and Wigan, though quiet for spells, were able to produce a couple of quality attacks. Kone working himself a great opening in the 32nd minute but his weak shot was straight at Mignolet; McCarthy whistling a ferocious shot wide of Mignolet’s left-hand post from distance in the 43rd.
At half-time, both teams would have gone in knowing they had not played vintage stuff. But Wigan would have been the happier, having carved out excellent chances, while Sunderland had struggled to get out of the blocks creatively.
The prospect loomed of a stalemate and it would have been interesting to speculate what impact that would have had on the morale of fans – five league draws to start a campaign would also have been a club record.
But the game was turned on its head within seconds of the restart when Wigan striker Jordi Gomez was red-carded for a cynical challenge on Danny Rose.
In the 47th minute, 10 yards into the Wigan half, Rose over-hit the ball and was stretching to regain possession when Gomez slid into him from the side, studs up, and making no attempt to play the ball.
An argument could be had about whether the foul deserved a yellow or red, but – like Cattermole’s midweek dismissal – you can’t really argue if you go in with studs raised and the referee sends you off.
“Jordi was just trying to help the team and made a striker’s challenge,” explained rueful Wigan boss Roberto Martinez. “Maybe he shouldn’t try to help us anymore!”
The consequences of that dismissal were brought home to Wigan when Sunderland took the lead almost immediately.
Sessegnon set the wheels in motion, midway inside Wigan’s half, receiving the ball from Seb Larsson and finding McClean on the left wing.
The Irishman opened up the Wigan defence, cutting inside two players to bear down on goal.
Not much had gone right in the game for the industrious McClean and that applied to the powerful shot he attempted, which sliced wickedly.
It might have brought groans of disappointment from the crowd, but, as it was, the only groans to be heard were from the Wigan fans high behind the goal as the ball fell straight to Fletcher, at the far post, who drove a left-foot shot home confidently from seven yards.
It was finishing of the highest quality, for the ball came to him at speed and at an angle, but his strike could hardly have been hit more truly, leaving Al Habsi with no chance.
Having taken the lead, Sunderland threatened to run away with it in the minutes that followed.
Sessegnon cut across goal from the left and forced a good save from the keeper, diving full length to his left, and then the Benin international was inches away from connecting with a scorching McClean cross through the six-yard box.
Gardner tried his luck with a 25-yard volley which was narrowly over the bar, but, with Sunderland unable to find a quick second goal, Wigan rallied.
Martinez made the most of his substitutions, bringing on all three in a bid to inject energy and go all-out for the equaliser.
The Black Cats controlled the lion’s share of possession but laboured in the final third and while the teams were separated by just one goal, Sunderland could never feel completely comfortable.
Wigan’s best chance came in the 73rd minute when, just as he had done in the first half, Beausejour rolled a tempting ball across the field, but substitute Franco di Santo could only fire high over Mignolet’s bar from outside the box.
O’Neill brought on David Vaughan for the fading Johnson and the Welsh international’s comfort on the ball and ability to pick a pass proved beneficial.
Larsson put a cross onto the roof of the net in the 79th minute, McClean headed wide in the 81st and there were no more real scares for the hosts as Sunderland saw out their first league win since beating QPR in March.
The only moment of genuine concern for Sunderland came not in the goalmouth but in the centre circle in time added on when Larsson lost the ball and leapt studs up at Kone, only to slide between the Wigan man’s legs.
It was a challenge far more savage-looking than that made by Gomez, but referee Howard Webb chose to let it pass, leaving a ruffled Martinez to sigh: “I have no explanation as to why that was not a red.”
The last time these two teams met at the Stadium of Light proved disastrous for Sunderland, and Steve Bruce in particular, in the wake of a scrappy game which could have gone either way.
This time, the scrappy game went Sunderland’s way and Martin O’Neill has cause to hope that the future for his side can be as bright now as it was dark then.
With Fletcher in such great goalscoring form and Mignolet producing a world-class save a week, the Wearsiders must have a fighting chance of at least preserving their unbeaten record when they travel to the home of Premier League champions Manchester City this weekend.