STEVEN Fletcher’s skills at the Liberty Stadium earned his side a Premier League point and himself the attention he missed out on when he signed.
It’s rare that a £12million signing arrives almost under the radar at Sunderland, especially a striker.
But the daring capture of an England winger from the Premier League champions for just £10m the same day was always going to eclipse the much-trailed arrival of a player from a club newly relegated to the Championship.
On Saturday, Fletcher stepped out of the shadows of more illustrious team-mate Adam Johnson to demonstrate exactly why Martin O’Neill pursued the ex-Wolves man so single-mindedly over the summer.
For this was a game Sunderland would have lost without the abilities Fletcher demonstrated in tucking away his brace – the first goal bearing the hallmarks of a predator, the second, those of a poacher.
And it also gave the lie to the claims that Fletcher is there purely as a finisher for chances set up for him.
On Saturday, the creative trio of Johnson, Stephane Sessegnon and James McClean were well below par by their own standards: Fletcher made both goals for himself.
The only shame from a Sunderland perspective was that the Wearsiders could not hold on to the lead their new signing twice game them.
But that was solely down to the excellence of a Swansea team which play in the fluent style of Arsenal but now boast a cutting edge to their play which was lacking in the previous campaign when they scored fewer goals than relegated Bolton and Blackburn.
The signing of £2m bargain Michu – four goals in three games now – and the loan arrival of creative midfielder Jonathan de Guzman has ensured that.
But they were matched by the contributions of attackers Nathan Dyer and Wayne Routledge – £1m for the pair – who never gave Sunderland’s defence a moment’s rest in the final hour of the game.
O’Neill went into the game with the luxury of fielding arguably his strongest team – Fletcher and Johnson given Premier League debuts in a team which showed two changes from the 11 who steam-rollered Morecambe in midweek: Carlos Cuellar and Simon Mignolet returning in place of Titus Bramble and Kieran Westwood.
Jack Colback was retained at left-back with O’Neill explaining that deadline-day signing Danny Rose was still short of match fitness.
They were facing the division’s form team on their home ground – only Chelsea in the 2010/11 season had ever, in the Premier League, had a better goal difference than the Swans from the season’s first two games.
And the hosts, seamlessly improved by new manager Michael Laudrup, started the game like one knowing top of the table beckoned if they could see off the Black Cats.
Sunderland did well to see off that opening charge.
But they would have known what was coming and they dug themselves in to get through the opening 10 minutes before starting to express themselves.
For all Swansea’s possession, Sunderland were only seriously tested once – Mignolet diving full stretch to his right in the eighth minute to prevent Dyer’s low effort from the right of goal finding the opposite corner.
The quarter-hour arrived with Sunderland finally starting to make inroads, but the game then had to be held up for five minutes after full-back Neil Taylor badly broke his ankle stemming a Sunderland advance by sliding into the back of Craig Gardner.
The injury, with oxygen being administered on the pitch and the player stretchered off, seemed to affect Sunderland more than Swansea, and Gardner more than anyone in the minutes that followed, as the home team threatened to regain their former domination.
During this spell, Sunderland’s defensive solidity came to the fore with centre-halves Carlos Cuellar and John O’Shea rock solid while skipper Lee Cattermole patrolled in front of them.
Cattermole’s loss to a dead leg in the 38th minute was a blow for the remainder of the game, but within a couple of minutes of his departure Sunderland were ahead when Fletcher capitalised on an awful error by Ashley Williams.
The centre-half’s attempted back pass, after being put under pressure by the Sunderland striker, fell well short and Fletcher was on it in an instant, pushing the ball forward with his thigh as he surged into the area from the right.
He had chased a lost cause and shown good control, but there was still much to do as two defenders closed in and keeper Michel Vorm advanced.
But he rose to the challenge, staying cool despite their attentions to curl a left-foot shot around Vorm and just inside the far post when it looked initially as though it would sneak wide.
It was a moment to savour for the striker, but the elation last only five minutes.
On the stroke of half-time, Dyer unpicked Sunderland’s defence on the edge of the area with a clever chip over the top, Routledge nipping smartly in behind to volley a shot across Mignolet from 10 yards.
It was a well-timed equaliser because just a couple of minutes earlier Swansea could easily have been two goals down – McClean blazing a thunderous volley, from Sessegnon’s right-wing cross, just a couple of yards over the bar.
Six minutes were added on past the 45 and you might have fancied reinvigorated Swansea to have the upper hand as the tempo rose.
Referee Roger East, in charge of his first Premier League game and doing well under pressure, decided against awarding a penalty either for an accidental handball by Colback at one end of the pitch, or Fletcher being manhandled to the floor at the other.
But even without his intervention, the scoresheet was still added to with virtually the last kick of the half when Seb Larsson’s deep free-kick from the left was touched home at the far post by Fletcher just a couple of yards – centre-half Chico Flores guilty of losing sight of both ball and man.
The close-range goal sent Sunderland into the break on a high, but Swansea were to prove on the resumption that they have no intention of being an early-season flash in the pan.
O’Neill changed his formation to 4-5-1 in a bid to counter the charge he knew would come.
In the 48th minute, sub David Meyler twice blocked shots in his area before Leon Britton’s cushioned lob was overhit with Mignolet stranded
The Sunderland keeper then made a smart block to deny Angel Rangel before the game exploded into controversy with two bad tackles in a minute just before the hour.
Firstly, Flores slid in horribly on McClean, leaving the winger in a heap on the turf clutching at his ankle.
And as O’Neill ranted and raged at the referee’s decision to play on, Gardner went through Danny Graham to give Swansea a free-kick 25 yards out from goal.
McClean was able to resume after treatment as Swansea came within a whisker of levelling from the set piece.
De Guzman’s effort cleared the wall and Mignolet scrambled to his left but could only parry the ball – Rangel shooting from the right of goal and Cuellar clearing off the line.
Swansea kept the pressure up and could have equalised twice within 60 seconds – Michu heading down and over the bar from just eight yards in the 62nd minute. then Graham receiving the ball on the left of goal and preparing to pull the trigger before Gardner produced a perfectly-timed tackle.
The equaliser was coming, though, and it finally arrived in the 65th minute with Michu’s fourth goal in three games.
There was danger from the moment De Guzman was allowed space and time on the right to size up the situation.
With Sunderland slow to close him down, the midfielder measured a fine centre into the box and Michu arrived with a diagonal run to power home a header across Mignolet.
In the minutes that followed, Swansea were looking favourites to score the next goal, but things changed again when centre-half Flores was red-carded in the 71st minute.
The red was for a head-high challenge on substitute Louis Saha, on for Fletcher just seconds earlier, with the striker being clipped in the back of the head by the defender’s boot.
Home fans were dismayed to see a straight red shown shown, but replays showed just how reckless and dangerous the challenge was and the Spaniard had to go.
It should have been the signal for Sunderland to take control and lay siege in the remaining 20 minutes – especially with Laudrup making defensive substitutions, hoping to see the game out.
But Swansea, showcasing their skills at “keep-ball”, were still positive going forward and Sunderland hardly got a look-in and often found themselves on the backfoot.
The best chance after the dismissal fell to substitute Fraizer Campbell in time added on after Vorm had dwelt in possession and hurried a clearance.
The Sunderland striker’s goalbound was blocked though and the game got the result it probably deserved.
Laudrup was ecstatic afterwards that his side had overcome the setbacks of serious injury, a sending-off and twice going behind to salvage something from the game.
O’Neill was less pleased, feeling his side should have done better in terms of holding onto the ball generally and in causing 10-man Swansea more problems especially.
But he could be happy with the point taken and, most of all, with the performance of the unsung Fletcher.
Unsung no more.