MARTIN O’NEILL believes that in the absence of injured top scorer Steven Fletcher, the responsibility of scoring Sunderland’s goals will bring out the best in Danny Graham.
The £5m January transfer window signing from Swansea has yet to break his duck in half a dozen attempts in red and white colours.
But the Sunderland manager says the loss of Fletcher for the rest of the season could well produce an upsurge in form from 27-year-old Tynesider Graham.
“I think he can thrive in this,” O’Neill said. “I really think he can.
“Obviously, you don’t want to be putting undue pressure on him to come in and do something, but I think this might well work in his favour.”
Fletcher was sidelined after damaging ankle ligaments while on international duty with Scotland, meaning Sunderland will have to rely on January buy Graham and teenager Connor Wickham for the goals they need for Premier League survival.
The experienced Graham will shoulder the bulk of the burden, but he has made nowhere near the impact of Fletcher, whose Sunderland career got off to a dream start when he scored five goals in his opening four league games for the Black Cats at the start of the season.
O’Neill said: “In an ideal world, it would have been great if Danny had come in and made the same kind of start.
“It would have settled him down, but it didn’t happen.
“However, he has scored goals in this league before and once he gets up and running and off the mark, the rest should follow.
“It’s a massive challenge for them and for us, but he and Connor Wickham have to see it as an opportunity to come in and shine.”
Fletcher’s injury came as a huge blow to Sunderland who remain in danger of relegation – the club lying just four points above the drop zone with eight games to go.
The 26-year-old was stretchered off two minutes into Scotland’s World Cup qualifying defeat to Wales at Hampden Park a week ago, returning to Sunderland for scans and assessment.
He will wear a protective boot for a fortnight before undergoing another scan which will decide whether an operation is required.