Steven Fletcher had problems of his own to deal with when the Paolo Di Canio regime began to unravel. The striker's shoulder had popped out during Sunderland's 3-0 defeat at West Bromwich Albion. After Di Canio had gesticulated towards the travelling fans at the Hawthorns, he stormed into the visiting dressing room. An argument with Lee Cattermole and Emanuele Giaccherini broke out. Di Canio was being questioned by his players. Fletcher, however, was coming to terms with the searing pain of his latest injury. "I was having gas and air straight after coming off," he said. "I was with the doctors. I only got told by a few of the lads."
Those players had already told Fletcher during his recovery from a far more serious injury that there were problems. In April, while on international duty with Scotland, Fletcher had damaged his ankle ligaments. It needed an operation and the recovery period was months. During that time, those team-mates who challenged Di Canio at West Bromwich had given warning that all was not well.
"I heard the boys talking, but you don't know what it's like until you get back," he said. "Sometimes you think, 'It can't be that bad'. Sometimes we felt like, 'Let's get the fans in and they can see what it's like and they can make a decision', but we couldn't do that."
Fletcher was surprised when he returned to the squad. "It was a shock to see how intense it was. Not the training – it was hard training but anyone can do hard training; it was just the atmosphere, the intensity of it all. It was just a weird atmosphere. You had a little laugh and you had the feeling your head teacher was going to tell you off."
It was worse than that, however. "He said he didn't want us to smile and laugh in training, but at every other club I've been at that's been a big part of things, having that togetherness. To be scared to say anything in case he had a crack at you, it's not nice, is it?
"We weren't scared to talk to each other but it got to the point where you just didn't want to. It got to the point where the boys were just coming in, doing their job and leaving. It shouldn't be like that at a football club. The boys would just come into the changing room, have a shower and get away. It wasn't a nice place to be."
Fletcher was taken aback by the Italian's comments. "I understand he said there was no togetherness in the team but it's one of the closest knit teams I've played for, even with the amount of foreign players in the team. One of the closest I've been at. It's superb, the foreign boys all want to speak English."
The day after the Albion game, those team-mates really had had enough. After another stormy meeting at the club's training ground, they went to see Margaret Byrne, Sunderland's chief executive. Di Canio was sacked. For the second time in six months, Fletcher had lost a manager. Six months earlier, he had been on a beach in Dubai, following the ankle operation, at the request of Martin O'Neill, the manager who had spent a club-record £12 million to sign him from Wolves. Then there was genuine disappointment at the news.
"It was hard," he said. "I was away. He'd given me two weeks off. He said, 'go away, get you're head sorted, relax', so I was away on the beach and I got a text saying the manager's been sacked. He was a big reason why I had joined the club." Fletcher did not let O'Neill down. He ended that season as Sunderland's top goalscorer and looked good value.
Now he is fit again, Sunderland's need for an immediate return to that same goalscoring form is vital. They have drawn one and lost seven of their eight Premier League games this season. Only one team has managed to avoid relegation after a start like that – Southampton in 1998-99.
In Gus Poyet, Fletcher also has a fourth manager since he joined the club in August last year (including the caretaker role of Kevin Ball) with whom to create a bond. "The new gaffer's been brilliant," he said. "As players, we know we're good enough to stay up. We're a good team. It's a strong squad.
"He knows what went on but he's not brought it up too much. Sometimes he has said, 'This isn't like last time, things have changed'. He knows he is not like the last regime. He said when he came in that everybody is different. I have only worked with him for a week but from what I have seen, he is what we need. It has been like night and day."
That renewed confidence will be tested today in the Tyne-Wear derby at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland cannot afford to lose. "It's massive for both clubs," said Fletcher. "They don't want a repeat of last year [Newcastle lost 3-0 at home] and we need the three points.
"The position we are in now, it doesn't matter who you play, we need to win. The boys know that. The manager knows it. He has had this week to get his things across. He's given the boys a buzz again. Every game you lose it's going to get harder and harder. We can't keep saying we've got a certain amount of games to go because it catches up on you. We need to put it right now."
Steven Fletcher wears Umbro Geometra 2 pro boots. Visit: www.umbro.com
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