ASHLEY FLETCHER will be doing all he can to fire Sunderland to safety in the Championship in the next three months – but the striker still hopes to be starting next season in Middlesbrough’s first team.

Fletcher made the short trip up the A19 on Wednesday evening when he completed a deadline-day move from Teesside, and made his Sunderland debut in Saturday’s 2-0 home defeat to Ipswich Town.

He was unable to get on the scoresheet at the weekend, with the result leaving the Black Cats mired in the Championship’s bottom three, but is confident he will make a positive impact in the 16 league games that remain.

However, with Boro having shelled out £6.5m to sign him from West Ham United in the summer, he is not about to start calling time on his career at the Riverside.

Whereas Tony Pulis was happy to rule out a Middlesbrough future for both Martin Braithwaite and Cyrus Christie, who also left on deadline-day, he has told Fletcher he could still form part of his long-term plans. That was music to the 22-year-old’s ears, and while his short-term focus might be on keeping Sunderland up, he still sees his future in a Boro shirt.

“The manager at Middlesbrough was very clear with me,” said Fletcher, who spent time on loan at Barnsley while he was on the books of Manchester United. “He said he wants me to go out and toughen up in a way.

“He wants to see me playing a run of games so he can get a better idea of what I can do. I need to get some good minutes, and I still believe I’ve got a future at Middlesbrough. It certainly wasn’t a case of the door being closed on me. But my sole focus at the moment is on Sunderland. This is my club for the rest of the season now, and I want to do everything I can to keep them up.”

Fletcher also wants to play. Plenty of loan players bemoan their lack of regular game time at their permanent employers, but Fletcher can justifiably reflect on his last three clubs and wonder what might have happened had he been able to get a run of regular matches under his belt.

He didn’t make a single senior appearance for Manchester United before he was moved on, and was only handed two league starts during his season at West Ham. He started Middlesbrough’s opening game of the current campaign under Garry Monk, but featured in just one of the Teessiders’ last 12 matches prior to his deadline-day departure.

“I haven’t really had the opportunities over the last couple of years,” said Fletcher. “That’s not really through anyone’s fault at all, it’s just one of those things in football where you’re down the pecking order and it’s up to you to get your career back on track. That’s the way I’m approaching things. For me, it’s all about playing games.

“It wasn’t a tough decision. For me personally, I just want to play football. I knew that there were quite a few ahead of me in the pecking order at Middlesbrough, and I knew that coming here would get me games. Sunderland is a massive football club, and we don’t really deserve to be where we are. My aim is to come here, play as many games as I can, and help the team avoid relegation.”

Saturday’s latest defeat leaves the Black Cats two points adrift of safety, hardly an insurmountable margin, but a major source of worry given that Chris Coleman’s side have now lost four of their last five league games.

Three of their next four matches are against teams in the top half of the table, and Coleman will be hoping his January signings bed in quickly as he looks to engineer a successful survival bid.

Fletcher has only had two training sessions with the rest of the Sunderland squad, but even though the Ipswich game did not go to plan, he still feels he has seen enough to convince him that his new employers should not be in the bottom three.

“I’m 100 per cent confident we can stay up,” he said. “I know we’ve lost in my first game, but when I came in here and trained for the first time earlier in the week, I couldn’t believe the quality that was there in the side.

“It’s so difficult to put your finger on why we’re not picking up results when you look around at the players that are training alongside you. We just need to regroup and get that first win. That installs confidence, and hopefully that will come next week.”

Sunderland’s next game takes them to Ashton Gate to take on a Bristol City side that are going through their own poor run of form. The Robins lost at Bolton on Friday night, and just as the Trotters dug in manfully to grind out a win that aided their own relegation fight, so the Black Cats will need to show an increased level of mental resolve if they are to succeed at the weekend.

On Saturday, they collapsed after conceding the opening goal, a failing that has undermined them on countless occasions this season. Somehow, they will have to develop a much thicker skin if they are to survive.

“It was straight into the firing line for me really, but I thought for the first 40 minutes especially, we played really well,” said Fletcher. “The first goal was so against the run of play, and it knocked the confidence out of us. But that happens in football and you have to learn to adapt.

“You can probably see a little bit (of mental fragility). Our heads probably went down a little bit after the first goal. We then said, ‘Let’s get to half-time without conceding again’, but then there was another sucker-punch with the unfortunate freak of an own goal.”

Fletcher has spent most of his career playing with older strikers around him, and the Keighley-born attacker admits he is having to get used to being the elder statesman in an extremely youthful Sunderland forward line.

“They’re (Joel Asoro and Ovie Ejaria) 19 or 20 years old, so although it’s strange, I was the oldest up front,” he said. “I’m only 23 so that was a bit of a weird situation for me. I know myself I need to step up, and I need to be getting in the right positions and scoring goals for Sunderland.”