Steven Fletcher: learning a lesson from the Darren Bent saga

Posted by Colin Randall

When Steve Bruce gives one his periodic interviews implying he was hounded out of his Sunderland job because fans bitterly resented his Newcastle United connections, he is not only wrong but overlooks a rather more rational grievance.

The success, at last, of Martin O'Neill's dogged pursuit of the Wolves striker Steven Fletcher - along with hopes that the excellent Manchester City midfielder Adam Johnson may be persuaded to join, too - offers a sharp reminder of one of the most glaring failings of the Bruce managership: the sale of Darren Bent to Aston Villa without recruiting anyone to replace him.

This time, no key player has been allowed to go anywhere until the completion an important inward transfer which also follows the canny acquisition of another striker Louis Saha, hardly in the first flush of youth but offering bags of experience and some guile, and the impressive former Aston Villa defender Carlos Cuellar.

Fletcher's Wolves tally of 24 goals in 45 starts is striking, all the more so when it is remembered he has been playing in a weak side. My Salut! Sunderland colleague Stephen Goldsmith was one of the first to acclaim O'Neill's attempts to bring him to the Stadium of Light, even as others mocked the sort of fee the club was willing to pay.

The ability to score regularly in the Premier League is a golden asset.

After all, Bent's firepower had kept Sunderland up in the 2010-2011 season. His play was later affected by his tearing desire to get away from the Stadium of Light, and the £24m Villa paid for him was undoubtedly good business. But the transfer, without cover being provided for a man who still posed a threat to opposing defences, was - as Bruce later admitted - a "calculated gamble".

The gamble badly misfired. With Danny Welbeck, on loan from Manchester United, starting an eight-week injury layoff, it left Bruce with only the much less prolific Asamoah Gyan; whatever efforts he made to buy a replacement before the Jan 2011 transfer window closed were unsuccessful. A dreadful slump in form ensued and the season ended on a flat note even if a respectable late rally gave us a slightly fortunate finish in 10th place.

The new season has started with continued speculation about the future of Stephane Sessegnon, easily Sunderland's most gifted player and a man capable of both scoring and making goals. A total of eight may seem underwhelming but it was enough to make him the club's joint top scorer, with Nicklas Bendtner, last season.

O'Neill knows he will lose Kieran Richardson, a decent but expendable midfielder, but will be more disturbed at the possibility 'Sess' could leave, too. He has been highly understanding of the player's separation from family, allowing him to return to their Parisian home during injuries and suspension, and has done all he can reasonably do to keep him.

If, despite our hopes, Sess is transferred - and there are hints that he sees his future elsewhere - his departure, though bitterly regretted, would be all the easier to accept now that O'Neill has shown he can lure players of high quality to the club.

Steve Fletcher, Saha and Cuellar can, in that respect, be seen as a great start, leaving us hope that more is to come.

And if, whatever the outcome of the club's negotiations with Johnson, O'Neill is able to convince Sess to remain at Sunderland, that would be - for Sunderland's legion of supporters - as warmly welcomed as their arrival.

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