TWO seasons ago, Ashley Fletcher was part of a Sunderland team that crashed out of the Championship in calamitous fashion. Off the pitch, the Black Cats were on the brink of financial collapse and flirting with the possibility of administration; on it, they were equally as shambolic, eventually finishing six points adrift of safety at the bottom of the pile. Anything that could have gone wrong malfunctioned spectacularly.

Is there a chance of history repeating for the 24-year-old? Nineteen games into the current campaign, and his new employers, Middlesbrough, have claimed just 17 points. They are one point clear of the drop zone ahead of tomorrow’s home game with Charlton Athletic, having been thrashed at Leeds United last weekend. So far, so familiar.

Yet speak to Fletcher, who was one of a number of Middlesbrough players who visited James Cook Hospital yesterday to distribute gifts on the children’s ward, and it is clear he feels any attempts to draw parallels between the two situations are badly misguided. Yes, times are tough at the moment. But they are still a world away from the chaos and crisis he encountered at Sunderland.

“It doesn’t feel anything like it did when I was at Sunderland, and I’d be the first to start worrying if it did,” said Fletcher. “At Sunderland, there’s no getting away from it, it was so tough. Off the field problems weren’t helping, and there was uncertainty with players and stuff like that too.

“With us here, everybody is pulling in the same direction, and everyone wants to get out of the problem we’re in. It’s just a case of putting the wins together, although that’s easier said than done in this league. A prime example was that Hull came to us on the Sunday and we played them off the park in the first half, but then they go and win 4-0 against Preston on the Tuesday. That’s the way the league is.”

Fletcher spent half-a-season on Wearside, scoring two goals in 16 games, and while he was unable to prevent Sunderland crashing into the third tier, with the Netflix cameras following his every move, he is convinced he benefited from the experience.

Despite only just having turned 22, he had to carry Sunderland’s goalscoring hopes on his shoulders, and deal with the flak when things did not go to plan.

“I learned a lot,” he said. “It’s never nice to be relegated, and I never wanted to go there and for that to happen, but at the same time, I learned a lot about myself and how to cope with disappointment in football. I’d never really had it up to then.

“That’s when I turned into a man, in a way. I had to take a lot of criticism, which was just. You get criticism all through your life and career, and now I know how to deal with it. It was a really good learning experience.”

At Sunderland, Fletcher was an untried novice in a dressing room dominated by embittered old pros. He is still just 24, but with Middlesbrough having put a huge emphasis on the development of youth this season, the tables have turned. Compared to the likes of Stephen Walker, Ben Liddle and Tyrone O’Neill, Boro’s substitutes at Elland Road last weekend, Fletcher is an elder statesman.

“It’s funny,” he said. “People say I’m a senior player, but I’m 24. But we’ve got so many young players I’m having to take on that responsibility. There’s me, Britt (Assombalonga), George Friend, but in terms of the matchday squad sometimes there’s only Danny (Ayala) and Darren (Randolph) when he’s playing as well.

“I see the likes of Stephen, Ty, Nathan Wood on the bench, and it’s fantastic for Middlesbrough. It’s fantastic for a young lad coming through in his hometown, and we can just help them from past experience and hope we get out of this mess.”