STEVEN FLETCHER’S first goals of 2014 belatedly handed Sunderland head coach Gus Poyet an opening Barclays Premier League victory of the season at the seventh attempt.
Sunderland - 3
Wickham 5; Fletcher 23, 79
Stoke City - 1
The Scotland international, who last found the back of the net in a league game at Cardiff on 28 December, headed home Jordi Gomez’s cross after setting up Conor Wickham for his fifth-minute opener, and then wrapped up a 3-1 win with a second 11 minutes from time.
The striker’s double will be have been warmly welcomed by Gordon Strachan, with Scotland due to play Georgia in a Euro 2016 qualifier at Ibrox on Saturday.
Poyet was full of praise for Fletcher, who did not even make the matchday 18 for the clash with Tottenham last month.
The Sunderland manager said: “I am very pleased for Fletch because I know how hard it was for him to be in the situation where a few weeks ago, I left him out of the squad. Decisions, like I always say.
“He was not happy, but he took it professionally and kept working. The previous week before we played Swansea, we were able to see something special in Fletch, he was coming back in training to his best.
“He had a chance to score the other day against Swansea, and this really was outstanding.
“I always say, the first way for you to be picked is Saturday, 3pm – if you play well, then you have got a better chance of playing next week; the second part is training every day. If you are good in training every day, I don’t think there’s a manager who is not going to play you. Fletch deserved to play today.”
Fletcher, restored to the starting line-up after Poyet relegated £20 million midfield duo Jack Rodwell and Adam Johnson to the bench, made the most of his latest opportunity to remind fans of his form on Wearside in the immediate aftermath of his £12 million arrival from Wolves.
Stoke, who were unbeaten in the league away from home before yesterday afternoon, had dragged themselves back into the game through Charlie Adam’s 15th-minute equaliser, but they could not complete the comeback in front of a crowd of 42,713.
Poyet, who celebrates a year in his job next week, sprang something of a surprise when he left former Manchester City duo Rodwell and Johnson sitting on the bench, but the ploy ultimately paid off.
Jordi Gomez and Fletcher were the beneficiaries of the Uruguayan’s big call as he attempted to inject firepower into a team which had managed just five goals in its first six Premier League games of the season.
The Black Cats went ahead after just five minutes when Fletcher bundled his way into space on the right side of the penalty area before floating a cross to the far post for Wickham to head home.
But Stoke worked their way back into the game and were level within ten minutes.
Full-back Billy Jones was caught on his heels after the home side were penalised for offside and Victor Moses exploited the space he had left behind to find Adam, who held off Santiago Vergini before firing past keeper Vito Mannone.
However, Sunderland restored their lead with 23 minutes gone when Gomez worked a short corner with Sebastian Larsson before sending in a cross which Fletcher guided expertly past keeper Asmir Begovic.
Stoke enjoyed periods of acendancy and had chances through Peter Crouch and Steven Nzonzi but it was Sunderland who finished strongest. Wickham embarked on a powerful run with 11 minutes remaining and crossed for substitute Rodwell, who comically miskicked in front of goal. However, Fletcher was on hand to put the result beyond doubt.