Steven Fletcher and “form of his life” were used quite regularly in the same sentence as the big striker led the line for Sheffield Wednesday in the first half of last season.
He found a purple patch heading into winter that meant six goals in four games – on top of six he’d got in his first 16 appearances of the campaign – as Wednesday climbed up towards nose bleed territory at the top of the Championship.
By the lockdown in mid-March, as he turned 33, he’d been directly involved in 15 goals in 29 games.
It turned out to be his best scoring return in any season – even if he missed a big chunk – since he left Hibernian in 2009, working his way to Stoke City via Burnley, Wolves, Sunderland and Marseille as well as Hillsborough.
What is the secret?
Irn-Bru. Or no Irn-Bru, to be precise.
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“I’m just looking after myself at home and at the training ground,” he told the Sheffield Star.
“I do the gym twice a day and that lads always hammer me for it. I’m never out of the place.
“And I’m eating well too. I loved Irn-Bru when I was younger. That was my guilty pleasure. Obviously I don’t drink that any more. I’ll go back to it when I retire.”
Garry Monk agreed, at least about the gym if not the fizzy orange Glasgow favourite.
The Wednesday boss aid: “Many moons ago I actually played against Fletch and I know what a handful he can be. I think what he has done is concentrate on his fitness.
“He is professional, understands what his body needs and looks after himself with his experience.
“He trains very well every day, works hard and is reaping the rewards of that. He is an example for any player to look after yourself in that way.”
How Wednesday used – and missed – Fletcher
It was no surprise, given all that, that Monk’s attack was built around Fletcher.
“The 6ft 1in striker is usually the focal point for long balls and regularly puts his body on the line to rise to the physical challenge of holding up play or flicking the ball on for team-mates,” wrote The Athletic in April.
“It has been an effective, if sometimes one-dimensional, tactic that plays to Fletcher’s strengths as he works hard for those around him.”
So he was inevitably missed badly too when he was ruled out for the best part of January and February with a knee injury. Then he only made one appearance in the re-start too before declining to extend his contract.
Wednesday had been third when they made the trip to bottom side Stoke City on Boxing Day but ended in 16th, with the Potters in 15th.
Now Fletcher is jumping ships, signing a two-year contract at the bet365 Stadium on Friday after long talks with Michael O’Neill.
O’Neill had a three-hour chat with the striker, making sure of his hunger and ambition on one hand while also selling the Stoke project amid significant competition for his signature. There had been talks with Celtic too, after all.
The medical at Stoke was thorough but showed he was in great shape for a fella with 553 games in his legs. He’ll join his new teammates at Clayton Wood this week.
What are Fletcher’s strengths?
Brave and strong are the buzz words but Fletcher has also won credit for his link up play and sharpness in the penalty area.
George Boyd, the former Wednesday winger, told The Athletic: “As a striker in the modern day, every time you pass into him he’s got a great touch and he’ll hold it up. I think he’s got even stronger the last few years so he’s got that aspect of his game which has improved.
“As a striker you want to know the ball is going to be safe and with Steven you know you are going to get that, he’s got a good turn of pace and he’s a goalscorer which you need. He has got a great finish with his left foot and it’s always in the side of the netting when he finishes. He is definitely one of the best finishers I have played with.”
Midfielder David Jones added: “He’s somebody who, if we’re going into the details of his game, always reacts well in the box if there is a loose ball. People always say strikers have to have good reactions but it’s because he is always switched on that he can anticipate where balls are going to be landing.
“I always like strikers to pick positions between the posts because it’s where they’ll score most of their goals, and he definitely knows and does that. I think it’s his positioning in-between defenders too — some strikers stand on defenders which makes it very easy for them to be marked. Fletch makes it horrible for defenders by playing between them, so it’s a combination of experience and know-how which is the reason why he keeps scoring goals.
“As a goalscorer he has always been someone who works hard for the team. As a midfielder with him playing in front of you, you can have issues with strikers who aren’t particularly keen on the defensive side of the game, but Fletch has always liked contributing defensively.”
What does it mean for Stoke’s other strikers?
Fletcher becomes O’Neill’s fifth front line striker, with Benik Afobe returning from a season on loan at Bristol City to join Sam Vokes, Tyrese Campbell and Lee Gregory.
Vokes, aged 30, ended 2019/20 as first choice and scored five goals in 18 starts and 18 sub appearances. He had a knack of hanging in the air which helped increase Stoke’s threat at set pieces.
Campbell, aged 20, was on the verge of leaving the club with a deal that was due to run out in June until O’Neill intervened and brought him into the first team fold around Christmas. Campbell seized his chance too, whether up front or wide on the right and scored nine in 18 starts and 15 sub appearances.
Gregory, aged 31, was only used from the bench for most of the second half of the season before grabbing two goals when he started the final three games (six goals in 22 starts, 18 sub apps in all). He has been clear that he’d like to stay.
Afobe, aged 27, spent most of last season on the sidelines with an anterior cruciate ligament injury. He returned for the re-start and has been back with Stoke in pre-season, starting yesterday’s friendly at Linfield.
Stoke are likely to have a 4-3-3 with one central striker as Plan A and a wing-backs system with two as Plan B. Either way, five into one or two is too many.
It would take an epic offer for Stoke to even contemplate loosening their grip on Campbell, who is now under contract until 2024.
How the pecking order takes shape or unravels over the next few weeks before the September 12 kick-off or, more importantly, the October 5 deadline might dictate how strong Stoke hold onto the other three – or how hard in turn they push to stay or leave… or who comes a-knocking.
Only this afternoon, Gregory has been linked with Derby County and Huddersfield. All will become clear sooner rather than later.
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