YESTERDAY Sam Allardyce posed a question Sunderland’s fans have been asking all season. Where would his old club be without Steven Fletcher? The blunt answer is the relegation zone.
“His goals are like gold in terms of the results they have given Sunderland this season,” said the ex-Roker Park centre-back, whose West Ham United team visit the Stadium of Light tomorrow.
Chalk them off and the Black Cats would be in the relegation zone, only above Queens Park Rangers and Reading on goal difference.
Fletcher has 38% of Sunderland’s Premier League goals this season.
Only Newcastle United, Liverpool and Swansea City have been more reliant on one man.
Few have gone to waste. Some strikers are flat-track bullies, specialising in putting the icing on rather than baking the cake.
Six of Fletcher’s eight goals have come in matches where no team-mates found the net. The Black Cats do not lose if he scores.
Things are improving. In early November, Fletcher was still the only Sunderland player to score for them in this season’s Premier League, now he is one of eight.
All bar Carlos Cuellar registered in December (actually, the central defender did too, but for Tottenham Hotspur).
Fletcher said: “It was a difficult start for the team.
“People were saying other players had to chip in with goals, but they have started to do that.
“Gards (Craig Gardner) is catching me up, so I’ll have to get a move on!
“It’s good competition with him. When Gards has the ball 25 yards out there’s no point even asking for a pass because you know he’s going to shoot and nine times out of 10 he hits the target.”
Having paid Wolverhampton Wanderers £12m for a predator, Sunderland can hardly complain Fletcher is dominating their output. It is a fine balance, however.
Leaning so heavily on one man leads to problems when he hits a barren patch – like Fletcher’s six goalless games in October and November – or gets injured, as the Scot has twice this term.
Allardyce, though, would love someone so dependable.
He added: “The importance of a goalscorer is massive and you see that at the top end of the table.
“Chelsea lost on Wednesday because they didn’t finish their chances and that man Michu scored again for Swansea.”
Connor Wickham’s first goal since October 2011, in Saturday’s FA Cup tie at Bolton Wanderers, suggested Sunderland at last have a striker who might lighten Fletcher’s load.
Fletcher added: “Connor is a great talent. He gives us something different. He has a presence.
“He has come on a few times and done well so he’s not far away from getting a start.”
Fletcher sees it as another sign things are starting to come together.
He said: “The boys are doing their jobs. We’re keeping a few clean sheets which is important and we’re scoring goals now, which is helping me out.
“The gaffer brought in a few new players last summer and what he’s going to do in January we don’t know, but we’re moving in the right direction.”