It's 3:23pm on 4th October 2014 and Black Cats centre forward Steven Fletcher stands a man accustomed to the red and white sea of avid euphoria. Just one goal and he has kindled a fortitude that not only ignites the vivacious core within the Stadium of Light, but also one within himself. He has liberated his inner ‘number nine'; releasing the vehement brutality of a striker that torches defensive lines and burns them to the ground. He is the stoppers' bane.
And all it took was 281 days of adaptation.
Y'see, fourteen years ago the notion of a Hibernian FC youth product being touted at £12 million was akin to a colossal Leith parable, even for the budding Steven Kenneth Fletcher. The adopted Scottish marvel charmed only the tamest domestic bids during his education in international nascent and Scottish League Cup conquest.
However his signature did fracture the finances of Burnley FC and Wolverhampton Wanderers, heaving £10 million around the Barclays Premier League in less than a year. Not even dual relegations diluted Fletchers credentials, as Martin O'Neill hauled Sunderland into a monetary mêlée for his services. Three BPL representatives invariably concurred that Steven Fletcher was a fundamental component of solidity and success.
Their shared raison d'être is founded in the strikers statistics - Fletchers algebraic log is an uncanny correlation to the common perception of his skill-set. He's a 6'2" aerial leviathan with a strikers' firing rate parallel to a doctor's surgical skill and, if used to those specifications, is methodically venomous.
He inflicted soaring SPL goal tallies when he was still Scotlands U21 poster boy, seizing Hibernian hat-tricks and stockpiling accolades aplenty with 52 goals from 229 apps. It was a commendable foundation for Burnley FC to develop upon, where Fletcher scored for the Clarets in 30% of his appearances. His gauge enhanced to 35% at Wolverhampton Wanderers, with 24 goals in 68.
The Scotland international had caused arithmetical fatalities in the Barclays Premier League prior to being a Black Cat; 54% of his Wolves tally were headed efforts, his 70% clear-cut conversion rate bettered any strikers in the 2010/11 season and overall conversion rate was the fifth highest across all European leagues; he scored every 170 minutes and, crucially, was relentlessly upgrading his forte to spite his limitations.
These strengths were Martin O'Neill's vision for Sunderland; to augment Steven Fletchers statistical probabilities and for his team-mates to acclimatise to them. It was efficient in practice as the Scot became an exemplary "fox in the box" in his inaugural Wearside term. For 28 matches Fletcher went juggernaut; 55 shots inflicted 11 goals, 65% shooting accuracy amassed a 39% goals-to-games ratio; he boasted both the fifth highest aerial success rate and fourth best shot conversion in a league of 537 professionals.
It was a goalmouth massacre too intense for his hair to endure. He went balls deep. It was self-evident that for as long as the tactics supplied him, Fletcher would improve and achieve to the mutual advantage of himself and his club. Supporters needed to only count with every goal.
Then he fell.
And the Scottish forwards 2013/14 campaign decomposed into a detrimental career botch, returning from injury to a club throttled by tyrannical totalitarianism as players blundered in apathetic chaos. Fletcher collapsed as anecdotes fuelled talk of a striker succumbed; his poise dashed, momentum comatose, and engine beat. His goal ratios and shooting accuracy were in freefall, concluding with that Wembley miss. 281 days, 0 goals. Steven Fletcher was not £12,000,000 anymore.
The dilemma was that his pitiable three goals that season were tailored to his aerial vigour while any contribution to Gus Poyets cautious, soil-strolling concept only exposed his deficiencies. Fletcher had tried to adjust to a new style that he ultimately preferred but was so sparsely trained to achieve in. A move away seemed almost pragmatic and, despite revisionist thinking, he had lost some crowd support.
Thankfully, Steven Fletcher has benefitted from the patience and intuition of his Uruguayan Head Coach. Likewise his Sporting Director, Lee Congerton, has benefitted from the wisdom of Head Scout, Steve Houston; an ardent advocate of the cluster-full avant-garde data schematics of global football.
Gus Poyet's faith and Houston's opaque algorithms surely identified solutions required to infuse Steven Fletcher and Poyets tactical paradigm. And after fourteen years of managerial philosophies relying on the forwards imperfect attributes, Steven Fletcher began a journey in adaptation, to forge new desired dimensions to his game, and learn what new carnage he could create at his Head Coachs instruction.
It's 3:23pm on 4th October 2014 and Black Cats centre forward Steven Fletcher stands a man accustomed to the red and white sea of avid euphoria. 42,713 people - and that strange woman coaching Stoke City - watch the revelation of ‘Gus Poyet's Steven Fletcher' in real time; a striker now immersed in sustaining his team-mates, selfless in his eagerness to create before completing, no longer prowling 18 yards of loneliness but still manipulating it with exquisite aggression.
In 56 minutes he will again suffocate defensive frailties and dominate. In mere weeks he will double his tally again, amassing a 60% shot accuracy by his tenth game this term and hitting a 40% goals-to-games ratio. After 281 days, the stoppers' bane has returned - confident, to score when he wants.
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