MARTIN O’NEILL saluted summer signing Steven Fletcher after the Scotland international’s two-goal blast at the DW Stadium took the striker into double figures for the season.
Goals nine and 10 for the 25-year-old were triumphs of technique – both coming to him at speed and both being dispatched with the minimum of fuss.
But O’Neill believes that to judge Fletcher on his goals – he has 10 now from 21 league games – is to do him a disservice in some ways.
“Steven has been fantastic since the day he arrived at Sunderland,” said the Black Cats’ boss.
“He has been great and we really relied on him in the first couple of months of the season when we were struggling.
“At that stage, he was the only player scoring goals for us.
“Since then, we have been able to share the goals around more and that’s pleasing, but he has remained a very important player for us.
“He is really top-class – a top-class centre-forward – and not just in his goals but in his overall play.
“The way he holds the ball up for us is very important.
“And for a man who is not tall, he’s very strong.
“He’s a proper centre forward, as Sir Bobby Robson would say, and we’re very pleased with him.”
Getting Fletcher on board was not easy with the striker’s former club, Wolves, playing hard-ball over the transfer fee last summer
O’Neill pursued him doggedly all the way through the close season, despite the Molineux club at one point insisting he wouldn’t leave for less than £15million and that they actually rated him in the £20m bracket.
Such was the Sunderland manager’s tenacity over his target, the Echo worried whether he had a Plan B in case the relegated West Midlanders refused to budge on their astronomical asking price.
But O’Neill eventually got his man and Fletcher is repaying the faith the Irishman put in him.
“It seemed to be a bit a bit of a saga at the time,” agreed O’Neill. “But I’m really glad now that I stuck out for him.
“He’s been a really good buy.
“We paid £12m for him and he’s been worth every penny.
“It took time because, of course, we had a price we were prepared to pay and Wolves had a price they wanted us to pay.
“But, when we got him, I never felt I’d paid over the odds for him.
“It seemed a long drawn-out affair at the time, but I’m delighted I stuck at it.”