STEVEN Fletcher was an unused sub against the MK Dons on Tuesday, but the announcement of his name in the Sunderland squad received one of the biggest cheers of the night.
He’s likely to be on the bench again, at Crystal Palace tomorrow. Maybe he will even get on.
Should he do so, it will be a seminal moment in Sunderland’s season.
For on the return of Fletcher and, more importantly, the form of Fletcher, it’s no exaggeration to say, Sunderland’s whole season might hinge.
The Black Cats need goals if they are to prosper, especially in a season where the early signs are that defences will be meaner than ever and teams more organised in restricting or frustrating efforts on goal.
Sunderland were not a natural goal-scoring team last season – scoring just 41 league goals at an average of barely more than a goal a game.
Fletcher scored more than a quarter of those goals and would surely have scored more had his season not been ended by the ankle injury which ruled him out in March and has kept him sidelined ever since.
In his absence, Sunderland have won only two out of their last 10 league matches and have scored more than one goal in a game only once – the 3-0 victory at Newcastle United.
This season, two Premier League games have yielded just one goal and that was scored by winger Emanuele Giaccherini when Southampton’s defence went AWOL last week.
Paolo Di Canio noted the need to add more goals to his squad last season and has acted by recruiting American forward Jozy Altidore, retaining Ji Dong-won and favouring a more attacking 4-2-4 formation.
The less said about Ji after his cup performance on Tuesday the better. But Altidore was impressive again, not only with his debut goal for the club but his all-round physical play and link-up work.
Last season, he scored 23 goals for AZ Alkmaar in Holland and has been prolific for his country, but he is yet to prove himself in the Premier League where Fletcher has shown himself adept at finding the back of the net for struggling top-flight teams Burnley, Wolves and Sunderland.
In the league so far this season, Di Canio’s men have looked tidy, well-organised, technically good and impressive in approach work, but where they have disappointed is in a lack of a cutting edge.
And that is what fans must hope Fletcher provides on his return.
Unlike Stephane Sessegnon, Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-won, Fletcher’s inclusion in the side invariably means goals – something John O’Shea refers to elsewhere in these pages – an ability which boosts confidence all around the team.
And Di Canio is excited about pairing his summer signing with last season’s leading goalscorer – there could well be an element of Quinn-Phillips about it, if the two men hit it off.
Altidore’s goal-scoring ability should not be under-estimated, but he’s excellent at hold-up play and occupying the attention of centre-halves.
That should relieve Fletcher of a burden he shouldered last season and allow the Scot more space to take up the goalscoring positions he thrives on.
Likewise, with Altidore, the American has had few goal-scoring chances so far because he has been so well-marshalled by centre-halves.
But Fletcher’s return – a striker who loves to buzz in and around the box – should also provide more latitude for Altidore to find space and shooting chances.
Make no mistake, though, Fletcher’s return is the key.
Sunderland have looked decent in defence and reasonable across the middle so far – they will be even better if they can land a genuinely creative midfield playmaker – but it is up front where they have found wanting.
And the campaign is going to be hamstrung if they cannot regularly create danger in the box; cannot regularly finish off the goal-scoring chances they produce.
Of course, good teams spread the goals around and hopefully Sunderland can do that this season.
But more than anything they need to find a competent, confident and consistent goalscorer who hits the target more often than not.
You fear for Sunderland this season if they cannot make the most of their spells of domination in games – their Achilles heel against Fulham on the opening day of the season.
But if the £12million man returns and takes up the mantle of prolific marksman in an attack-minded team, it will make all the difference to this season’s outcome.
No pressure, Mr Fletcher…