As Steven Fletcher was stretchered off during Scotland's 2-1 defeat to Wales on Friday evening, the panic began to set in. Sunderland fans, who had already watched their side slip further and further into the relegation mire, now had to cope with the loss of their star striker in the crucial end of season run-in, with few options remaining at the club up front.
It doesn't help that the man who will replace Fletcher up top has been seriously under performing since his arrival in January. In many ways, Danny Graham's transfer seemed like an odd one at the time. In signing a goalscorer, who was adept at holding the ball and who preferred to play as a sole striker, the club hadn't really signed anything different to what they already had. Spending 5 million pound on Graham seemed like a waste of money, which could have been better spend elsewhere in the team, especially when Sunderland had Connor Wickham, Ji and Frazier Campbell as back-up; players who could offer something a little bit different from Fletcher. Furthermore, there was the added factor of the controversy around comments Graham had made previously about his Geordie roots, leading to mistrust from certain sections of the fans.
The former Swansea man hasn't done anything to help his cause since; he has yet to score for his new club, and has looked sluggish and out of shape. To be fair Graham hasn't had the chance to play his natural game as a lone striker yet, and has so far been forced into a 4-4-2 to fight for space with the similar Fletcher. With the Scotsman potentially out for the rest of the season, now is the time for Graham to prove his worth and redeem himself in the eyes of supporters.
We can presume that O'Neill will ditch the 4-4-2 used in previous games, possibly reverting back to the 4-4-1-1 favoured earlier in the season, with Graham allowed to play as the lone striker ahead of Stephane Sessegnon. This was a similar role to that performed by the the forward during his successful first season at Swansea last year. Playing in front of a creative midfielder in Gylfi Sigurdsson for most of the season, and flanked by wingers Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair, the set-up wasn't all that different to the one used by Sunderland. The striker managed a very credible 12 Premier League goals for the Swans, the same scored by Fletcher for Wolves in the same season, suggesting that, if the set-up his right, he can be a very effective player. With Graham given the chance to perform in his preferred role, there are no excuses now if he continues his poor form. He simply must show he was worth the fee payed for him.
It's not just the fans who will sweating over the form of Graham of course. Martin O'Neill needs his new signing to start performing. In putting his faith in the striker ahead of the popular Connor Wickham, the Northern Irishman has put himself at odds with a great deal of the club's fanbase, and therefore needs Graham's transfer to pay off. He has received strong criticism for his January dealings; as well as Graham he's brought in the hit and miss Alfred N'Diaye, and was fooled into signing Kader Mangane, a footballer who doesn't even exist. Furthermore, the risky decision to let half the strike force leave in January now looks like a huge mistake with Fletcher injured and Sunderland left struggling for forwards.
If Danny Graham can come into the side and fire Sunderland to safety, it would not only prove the 5 millions pounds spent on him was completely worth it, it will also go some way to vindicating his manager in the eyes of supporters. It will prove that O'Neill's gamble in letting so many players go was the correct one. It will show that spending such a fee on a player who wasn't really any different to what the club already had was actually a very shrewd move. If, on the other hand Graham continues his poor form, despite playing in his natural role, it would raise serious concerns, not just about O'Neill's ability to keep Sunderland in the league, but also his judgement in the transfer market ahead of a summer of squad rebuilding. It could be said that the fates of Danny Graham and Martin O'Neill at the are intrinsically linked.
If Graham can show that he's a more than adequate replacement for Steven Fletcher, and help the club retain their Premier League status he will have proven himself to the fans. If he succeeds, then it will have been a shrewd move from O'Neill to bring the striker in. Of course there are other reasons to be unsure of the Northern Irishman, but if he's gotten this decision right, despite the reservations of supporters, he will take a giant leap in proving he's the right man to take Sunderland forward.