If the multiverse theory is real then somewhere, in another universe, Sunderland fans are bored with the indifference of Premier League mid-table security provided by the prolific front-line goal scoring of one Steven Kenneth Fletcher.
Well, hark on back to January 2013, and recall a time when we nearly entered that fictional place where all is well at this club. Martin O’Neill was in, our league standing was somewhat assured, and in one Scottish international centre forward, we had a player who, as we put it, scored when he wanted.
He had also just peaked – seven months after his debut.
But what happened? How did this recommended player, recruited for £11.4m, with a backlog of thirty Premier League goals, go from a half-season love-in with supporters to mutually collective indifference and be allowed to leave for nothing?
Well, let’s go back to that 2012/2013 season. When Fletcher debuted for us, he was tailor-made for Martin O’Neill’s game plan: a young, 6"1 nuisance with good aerial presence and a 39% goal-per-game ratio in the Premier League.
And, let’s be honest, for a half-season there – he delivered: Premier League Player of the Month in September, five goals in his opening four matches, ten league goals by December, contributing to 43% of the team’s entire goal tally by March; the Scot papered over a lot of dull cracks for his manager.
However, upon his return from an ankle ligament operation in the 2013/2014 season, the landscape of Sunderland AFC was very different. O’Neill, who had coached Fletcher into his career-best form, was gone; and after a thankfully short-lived bangarang with Paolo Di Canio, new head coach Gustavo Poyet was responsible for continuing the striker’s promising start at the club.
That didn’t happen. It never happened. Not in the 13/14 season, not in the 2014/2015 season. Steven Fletcher may have peaked in January 2013, but it was Poyet’s appointment in October that prompted the beginning of the end for the forward’s career on Wearside.
Short passing, ball retention and continental possession play were all traits of the Uruguayan coach’s ill-fated on-pitch paradigm. For two seasons, none of this applied to Fletcher, who struggled regularly to adapt to this new ideology that vastly contrasted the open-play crossing and long-ball tactics he was recruited for by O’Neill.
Now, that may explain the inevitability of the striker’s lengthy drop in form, but should not excuse it. Across the 13/14 and 14/15 seasons, Fletcher’s 8 league goals dropped to a rate of one per 384 minutes; far from the one per 215 minutes in his debut campaign. His already-unspectacular 51% shot accuracy in 12/13 also took a disastrous nose-dive to just 28% in 13/14.
Worse still, his five-match goalless streaks in 12/13 were now eclipsed by a nine-match barren run in 13/14, and another of twenty-one matches in 14/15!
That can, however, be viewed in the context of chances Fletcher was afforded under Poyet’s tactical management. Under Martin O’Neill, the forward was given 337 chances to win the ball in the air – he won 143. Under Poyet, however, Fletcher was provided sixteen fewer chances (321) across two seasons! A rare plaudit to the striker, in this instance, is that his aerial dual win rate remained consistently between 40-44% throughout his time. The point here though, is that you could reasonably argue that the forward was never properly used to his strengths during this time.
To further emphasise this, let’s look at this most recent 2015/2016 season. Under the combined management of Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce, Fletcher won 64 of 155 aerial duals. 155 – that, in half a season, is half of the two seasons’ worth of chances afforded under Poyet’s tactics.
Also, think about this. If Steven Fletcher was commended enough to get his own chant in his first season here, then why wasn’t he afforded similar plaudits for his goal-scoring last season? By November 2015, the striker had contributed to 5 goals – the exact tally he had amassed for Sunderland around the same time in his debut season.
But wait, there’s more! His goal ratio in the 15/16 season had significantly improved to per 253 minutes too. His longest goal drought had also returned to a moderately low six matches, between November and January 2016. So was this all just a misunderstanding of mismanagement on the part of Gus Poyet?
Well, look closer at this. If you combine all the matches Fletcher played for Di Canio, Advocaat and Allardyce – 26 games – we see that he scored 6 goals for those head coaches/managers. It’s a s*** return, but it’s also the same amount of goals he scored in forty league appearances for Gus Poyet!
It gets worse. Under Poyet’s tactics, Fletcher was provided 69 chances which he took across the 13/14 and 14/15 campaigns – just sixty-nine shots. Comparatively, combine Fletcher’s guidance under O’Neill, Advocaat and Allardyce in the 12/13 and 15/16 seasons, and we see Fletcher took eighty shots. At first, that’s not a big difference; but remember that Fletcher missed a third of his inaugural season with O’Neill, and was loaned out in January 2016 under Allardyce!
It’s all a moot point anyway. No matter how much Fletcher improved last season, his fate was already sealed; not just due to his two-year form dip, but also due to the arrival of the far-more effective Jermain Defoe. By January 2016, the Scot was averaging a shot accuracy of one per 101 minutes; while as accurate as Graziano Pellè at the time, it was just too far behind Defoe’s highly-impressive stats.
So that’s it. This season saw a mild resurgence in form from Steven Fletcher that was ultimately pointless. His shipping off to Olympique Marseille was none of our business, considering his contractual circumstances. It was too little, too late, as they say. So, we ask again, how did it go so wrong?
Were we sold a bill of goods here? No. In fact, if Steven Fletcher was recruited to produce the same goal scoring ratio that he did for Wolverhampton Wanderers and Burnley FC then, at least in his first and final seasons here, he did just that.
However, the bottom line is that Martin O’Neill oversold the merits of Steven Fletcher’s recruitment when, in actuality, the-then twenty-five year old was only ever a second-rate striker with the unfulfilled potential to be so much better.
The forward proved, in his first season here, that he was capable of scoring double-figures for the club. He may even have done that this season, had Sam Allardyce not loaned him out.
Should his career on Wearside be defined by two seasons of good management, under O’Neill, Advocaat and Allardyce; managers who knew how to utilise his very few, but very effective strengths; and two further seasons of mismanagement by a head coach who was blinded by his own doomed ideologies? Maybe.
But 23 goals and 6 assists from 94 league games is not a good return. Having scored in only 24% of his appearances, Steven Fletcher did not meet the standards expected of him for £11.4m. And while it can be argued that ill-sighted coaching restricted him, it was ultimately Fletcher’s own lack of motivation to adapt that makes his four years on Wearside a sombre disappointment.