STEVEN FLETCHER thought he had made a goal-scoring return to competitive action.
Just before the hour mark at the Hawthorns last weekend, Fletcher headed home Wes Brown’s flick-on before peeling away in front of the bouncing away end.
The Scot’s ecstasy was short-lived. The linesman had correctly raised his flag for offside and Sunderland’s brief celebrations at regaining the lead were quashed.
Fletcher doesn’t seem too perturbed. He admits the “goal” came off his nose anyway!
Just being out on the pitch again was more important for the 27-year-old after making his first Premier League appearance since limping off in the stalemate against Crystal Palace last March.
Limp is an apt word to describe last season for Fletcher – both because of his succession of injuries and the striker’s sluggish performances.
The time on the treatment table clearly took its toll on a player who was generally a shadow of the predator who netted 11 times during his maiden season on Wearside after a £12million move from Wolves.
But Fletcher looked sharp throughout pre-season and was relieved to be back in the fold for the Premier League opener.
He told SportMail: “It was great to be back out there.
“It was a hard season for me last year with injuries and stuff, so I’m just happy to be back fully fit.
“It would have been good to get off the mark so early, but it wasn’t to be.”
Gus Poyet opted to deploy both Fletcher and Connor Wickham in the starting line-up in the 2-2 draw against the Baggies, with the latter operating from a wide role.
Ultimately the pair are expected to compete for the solitary spot leading the line, but for the moment, Fletcher believes the duo can work in tandem.
“As long as it stays that way, we’ll both be happy,” he said. “Connor is still young and enthusiastic, so he will run all day for you.
“I think that’s why the gaffer has chosen him to play him there, plus he’s strong as well and can keep the ball for us out there.”
While there were clearly a handful of teething problems for Sunderland in the West Midlands, the Black Cats battled back to earn a share of the spoils with five minutes to go.
That equalled Sunderland’s entire points tally from the first eight games of last season and Fletcher was not begrudging that outcome.
He said: “It was definitely good to get that first point on the board. That was invaluable for us.
“It took us eight games to get a point last year, so it’s a step in the right direction.
“It was a credit to the gaffer as well. He put on another striker and pushed us all forwards, and we managed to get that second goal.”
Sunderland will look to build on that opening day point against Manchester United in Sunday’s first home game of the campaign, with the visitors already under scrutiny after their defeat to Swansea last weekend.
New boss Louis van Gaal, who strengthened his squad with the £16million capture of Argentine defender Marcos Rojo this week, faces a rebuilding job at Old Trafford after succeeding the sacked David Moyes during the summer.
And Fletcher knows from the three managers he has worked with during two years at Sunderland, that it takes time for the new man in the dug-out to get his ideas across.
“We’ve watched their game against Swansea, and it’s obviously going to be hard for them at first to adapt to the way the new manager wants to play,” he added.
“But they’ve had him throughout pre-season, so I’m sure there’ll be alright over the course of the season.
“We know how it is. We’ve had a fair few managers here recently!
“When you get a new manager, you need to adapt to the way he wants to play.”