It is puzzling that Sunderland were alone in pursuing the excellent striker who has ended his international exile
If Steven Fletcher's recall by Scotland is hardly a surprise, the real mystery surrounds his shortage of summer-time suitors. Admittedly Aston Villa expressed mild interest in prising the centre-forward away from Wolves but it was really only Sunderland who set their heart on Fletcher. Why?
Was it snobbery? Relegated from the Premier League with Burnley and then Wolves, the former Hibs striker had perhaps been tarred by association. Then there was the fact that many of his goals were registered with his head – perhaps that distracted managers from the compelling statistic that he scored nearly once every two games. For someone playing in struggling sides that represents a stunning ratio.
In the end, Martin O'Neill persuaded Sunderland's owner, Ellis Short, to part with, depending who you believe, either £12m or £14m. Since then Fletcher has scored Sunderland's five Premier League goals of the new campaign – with his feet.
Last Saturday, he scored the winner against Wigan at the Stadium of Light with Sunderland's only chance, but such clinical proficiency is augmented by an all-round excellence. Apart from being decent in the air and possessing stellar positional sense, Fletcher has shone on the ground. His adhesive control and ability to manoeuvre the ball in the tightest of spots with defenders breathing down his neck has extricated O'Neill's team from several awkward situations.
Small wonder Sunderland's manager feels entitled to joke that he was a bargain – although compared with the £35m Liverpool paid Newcastle for Andy Carroll Fletcher certainly looks one – but the interesting thing is that the Northern Irishman is not remotely startled by the 25-year-old's impact. "No, I'm not surprised," says O'Neill. "I watched Steven quite a lot last season and I knew he was a very good player."
The puzzle is why Arsène Wenger, Brendan Rodgers, André Villas-Boas and friends did not join their Sunderland counterpart in pursuing him. True, Fletcher came with a bit of "a British premium" but if he carries on like this he will soon double his value.
Indeed, he would probably have scored more elsewhere as, with Adam Johnson injured of late, James McClean suffering a spot of "second-season syndrome" and Stéphane Sessègnon a pale shadow of his normal self, Sunderland have not yet clicked into a proper chance-creating groove.
Perhaps Fletcher's trouble is that his 6ft 1in frame, and a face that looks much older than his 25 years, have conspired to see him branded, erroneously, "old-fashioned", "a throwback" or "retro". Possibly being seen as Scottish rather than French, Spanish or even English did not help either. Or maybe people wondered about the bloody-minded streak that manifested itself in February 2011 when he informed the Scotland camp by text message that he did not want to be selected to play Northern Ireland.
By May this year, Craig Levein, Scotland's coach, had declared: "There's no going back on this. That's it. Finished. Done." Now Levein is describing Fletcher's recall as a "no-brainer".
A third party – O'Neill? – contacted Scotland's coach to inform him Fletcher was desperate to return to the fold. It was not long before Levein "bit the bullet", chose to ignore the public criticism from Fletcher which had preceded the whole business and picked up the phone. Pride swallowed, he then invited the man who has scored five goals in four Premier League games this season back for his country's vital World Cup qualifiers against Wales and Belgium.
The two cases remain very different but Levein must have felt a touch like Roberto Mancini deciding to perform a volte-face on Carlos Tévez in order to win last season's title. Although whether even Fletcher can save Levein's side from further ignominy remains debatable.
Roy Hodgson, meanwhile, may be cursing the Shrewsbury-born Fletcher's decision to represent Scotland, the place of his mother's birth, and the country in which he lived for some time following the death of his English father. Steven Fletcher would surely have made a far from shabby England No9.