Sunderland boss reveals change in Middlesbrough striker and welcomes competition for places

Ashley Fletcher celebrates scoring at Derby.
Ashley Fletcher celebrates scoring at Derby.

Chris Coleman has seen a big improvement in Ashley Fletcher since the striker finally ended his Sunderland goal drought - to give him a welcome selection headache.

The 22-year-old had gone eight games before opening his account in the 4-1 demolition of Derby County.

Fletcher couldn’t follow it up against Sheffield Wednesday, a defeat that left Sunderland eight points from safety and League One-bound, but Coleman has praised Fletcher for his improved form.

Though, the increasing fear among fans is that it has come far too late to help save the club from the drop.

“I have seen a difference in Ash,” said Coleman.

“He looks fitter, he is winning more duels, winning more battles and he has a spring in his step.

“He could have had a hat-trick against Derby County.

“I thought he was unlucky against Sheffield Wednesday, the referee gave a free-kick against him for heading the ball in the first half; the keeper ran into him and he gave a free-kick - I’ve never seen that before!

“He has been brave Ash and has looked better.”

Sunderland head to Elland Road on Saturday to face a Leeds United side sitting comfortably in 13th.

The writing appears to be on the wall for Sunderland but Coleman at least has a strong squad for the run-in, as the Cats fight to avoid successive relegations in the final six games.

Against Sheff Wed, the Sunderland bench included attacking options Kazenga LuaLua, Joel Asoro and Josh Maja with genuine competition for places.

“The bench is stronger now,” added Coleman. “We go to Elland Road on Saturday, a great place to play football, we are up against it but you don’t want to miss a game like that.

“Whoever gets the nod, they have to just absolutely empty, whether it is Fletch, Joel, Maja, whoever gets the nod.

“We are now doubled up in certain positions, we haven’t had that.

“We have a 21-man fit squad, which is good because for long periods we didn’t have anything like that.

“Performance wise, whoever plays and gets the nod has to emulate what the team has done against Sheffield Wednesday and Derby.”