On August 24th, Martin O'Neill and Sunderland AFC had a transfer bid accepted by Wolverhampton Wanderers, who were in the midst of a firesale. Relegated at the end of the previous season, Wolves didn't have much choice but to sell their best assets. Winger Matt Jarvis was on his way to Sam Allardyce and West Ham United, but the Black Cats weren't interested in width. What they needed was a centre forward, and Steven Fletcher fit the bill perfectly.
The price tag -- £12 million -- attracted plenty of derision. Looking back, it's difficult to understand whether or not the criticism had any merit at all. Journalists and analysts met the move with what amounted to a big raspberry. "£12 million for Steven Fletcher?", the collective intoned. "What a joke!"
It wasn't that Fletcher had played for a newly relegated side. Jarvis' sale wasn't met with the same sort of disdain despite his Wolves connection. It wasn't that Fletcher was aging, or that he'd be paid stratospheric wages. It wasn't that Fletcher was bad, either. 12 goals for the worst team in the Premier League's a pretty decent return for a striker, after all.
The best I can come up with in terms of explaining why O'Neill and Sunderland were so widely slammed for picking him up is that he's simply not very sexy. Not a pretty face, not an extravagant name or nationality (see the praise Liverpool received when they bought Fabio Borini for around the same price) and no real flair to his play. Steven Fletcher is, to be honest, kind of boring.
But being boring doesn't make you a bad footballer, and Sunderland needed someone to score their goals. Quite badly, in fact. Last season the title of top scorer in all competitions was shared between three players with eight apiece, and one of them, Nicklas Bendtner, is now at Juventus. Only one club, Wigan Athletic, had their top scorer grab fewer.
Sunderland, of course, did reasonably well in getting their midfielders in on the action, managing a respectable total of 45 goals in the Premier League last season. But they needed a focal point, someone to bang in goals that the likes of Stephane Sessegnon and James McClean can create. Steven Fletcher was the answer that they came up with.
And so far, it's looked like a pretty good one. Fletcher currently sits second in the Premier League top scorers list, level with Robin van Persie and Luis Suarez at five goals. Considering he's only had four games since the move, that's an impressive return. What's even more impressive is that a) Sunderland have gone unbeaten so far this season and b) Fletcher has scored every single one of their goals.
It'd be unreasonable to assert that Sunderland wouldn't have the record that they do if Fletcher wasn't on the team -- football is a team game and goals are merely the end product of a side pushing to get them. But what is abundantly clear is that the Fletcher gamble has paid of spectacularly. He's provided the end product to the Black Cats attack that had otherwise been lacking.
So, is everyone convinced yet? Not quite. I asked one of the critics of the deal what he makes of Fletcher transfer now, and he remains at least partially skeptical:
I'd like my part in [the criticism] stricken from the record ... on the condition I can put it back in later
There's just something about Steven Fletcher, I guess.