IT might have been one of the most challenging periods of his life, but Ashley Fletcher feels last season’s spell at Sunderland transformed him as both a person and a player, and enabled him to deal with Middlesbrough’s recent poor run.

Fletcher helped Boro get their season back on track on Tuesday night, with his two goals securing the 2-0 win at Bolton Wanderers that finally ended a six-game losing run.

During that spell, some serious questions were asked about Boro’s ability to maintain a place in the play-off picture, and the future of their manager, Tony Pulis, but Fletcher was not too perturbed about the sniping from the sidelines.

Last season, he was part of a Sunderland side that imploded spectacularly as they crashed out of the Championship, and while the experience left its mark, as evidenced by the 23-year-old’s honest and open contribution to the Netflix series, ‘Sunderland Til I Die’, it also forced him to accept some harsh truths about the inevitable ups and downs of a footballing career.

“I think the experiences of last season have helped me, 100 per cent,” said Fletcher, whose first-half brace on Tuesday made it five goals in his last nine games. “In a strange way, I have to thank Sunderland. I went there as their number nine, and it’s a huge club. I hope to see them back in the Championship next season.

“In a weird way, it was definitely character building for me. I had to grow up a lot and handle a lot of things. The biggest thing was that I never ducked the issue, and that’s been important for helping me develop as a player.

“We all knew we were in trouble, but I didn’t hide away, and so whatever is thrown at me in the future, I know I can handle it and deal with it. As long as you go out there and give 100 per cent, that’s all you can influence as a player. That’s an important lesson I learned.”

Having contributed to a much-needed win on Tuesday, Fletcher is hoping that Boro have drawn a line under their recent struggles at just the right moment.

With five games still to play, a play-off place remains a possibility, although the Teessiders might well have to win at least four of their remaining matches to scramble back into the top six.

Their next test comes on Saturday, when they host Hull City, and while losing six games on the spin is hardly ideal at any stage of the season, it is hardly unknown for Championship clubs to experience wildly fluctuating fortunes over the course of a campaign.

“Football’s a crazy game,” said Fletcher. “We’ve lost six games in a row – but now we have a chance to win six games in a row to try to get into the play-offs. That’s what the Championship is like.

“You can have a bad run, but then you can come back and win six on the bounce. That’s the kind of mentality we’ve got.

“We all know that teams have a blip. We’re not the only team up near the top of the table to have been on a bad run – West Brom seem to be having a blip of their own at the minute. Hopefully, ours is over and we look to keep pushing now.”

Fletcher is set to be an important part of that push, with Pulis already having confirmed the forward will retain his place in the starting line-up on Saturday.

Having made a £6.5m move from West Ham at the start of last season, it has taken Fletcher more than 18 months to make any kind of an impression on Teesside.

Prior to mid-February, he had made just one league start in the whole of the current campaign – and even that was aborted before half-time after Mo Besic was sent off against Blackburn.

However, since starting in the reverse fixture against Blackburn at Ewood Park a couple of months ago, he has been involved in every game, and he is delighted to finally be displaying the kind of form that persuaded Garry Monk to sign him in the aftermath of Boro’s relegation.

“I’m happy to be in the team and playing reasonably well, but I’m certainly not satisfied,” he said. “I want to keep going and score more goals – that’s what Middlesbrough brought me in to do.

“They put a lot of investment into me, and I need to start rewarding them with performances on the pitch. Over the last two months, I largely think I’ve done that, but there’s definitely much more to come from me too.”