MARTIN O'Neill will use this week's trip to Dubai to create something he has rarely had as Sunderland manager - a genuine strike partnership.
With no FA Cup game at the weekend, the Black Cats have flown to the Middle East for warm weather training. High on the agenda will be forming a partnership between top-scorer Steven Fletcher and £5m signing Danny Graham.
“We’ve got a good chance this week – there’s been very little chance so far with Steven Fletcher away with Scotland last week – to get them together and start working with them,” explained manager O’Neill.
“He (Graham) will sneak us a goal or two when it’s never been on or we haven’t deserved it.”
The pair have already played together twice, but only briefly. Graham was a late substitute at Reading, and at home to Arsenal on Saturday.
His debut came two days after joining from Swansea City, while the build-up to the Arsenal match was punctuated by Scotland’s friendly against Estonia.
Sunderland are in Dubai until the weekend, with their next competitive game is at West Bromwich Albion a week on Saturday.
For most of his time on Wearside, O’Neill has played 4-4-1-1, with occasional switches to variants of 4-3-3. Those systems have tended to leave lone striker Fletcher isolated, with Stéphane Sessègnon dropping too deep too often and the only midfielder who runs beyond the striker – Craig Gardner – generally at right-back.
Until buying Graham, O’Neill has not had a player he trusts alongside Fletcher in a 4-4-2 formation. Louis Saha, Fraizer Campbell, James McFadden and Ji Dong-won all left the Stadium of Light (the latter temporarily) last month, and on Friday Connor Wickham was loaned to Championship side Sheffield Wednesday.
“I don’t think we’ve got one specific system, I hope not anyway, and in time my own view is the two players can play together,” said O’Neill.
“It’s just a matter of time and I don’t see that being a massive problem. We’ll see, it’ll take a little bit of time.”
Despite being one of only three genuine centre-forwards left, Wickham (right) was allowed to join Wednesday, for whom he made his debut on Saturday.
O’Neill described it as a risk worth taking because Wickham would only miss three Sunderland games in his month-long stint, but the 19-year-old is already talking about staying longer.
“It’s extendable if both clubs agree so, hopefully, I will be here for a good period,” said the England Under-21 international, a 33rd-minute substitute in Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Derby. “Martin O’Neill was happy for me to come here, get games and experience, and not getting games at Sunderland was a big part in coming to Sheffield Wednesday. My confidence is high and hopefully I’ll add another dimension to the team.”
At £8.1m, Wickham remains Sunderland’s most expensive teenager, but has only repaid his fee with two goals in a season-and-a-half. The former Ipswich striker insists the two are unrelated.
“It’s not my decision, it’s not my fault I went for that amount of money,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Black Cats’ most expensive goalkeeper, Craig Gordon, is considering retirement.
The 30-year-old has not found a club since being released by Sunderland at the end of last season after an injury-plagued couple of years. He coached Scottish Division One side Dumbarton at the weekend.
“It’s very unlikely I will be playing again this season,” he told the Pars’ website. “In fact, I’m not sure if I’ll play again, so I’m looking to get into coaching as I want to remain in the game.”
Sunderland paid Hearts £9m for Gordon in 2007. No British goalkeeper – and only seven others – have been transferred for more.