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Red Bulls close to loan deal for Watford striker Ashley Fletcher

26-year old Englishman is a Manchester United academy product deemed surplus to requirements by Premiership side

Watford v Stoke City - Carabao Cup Third Round
Ashley Fletcher collects the ball after scoring for Watford in a cup match last year.
Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The New York Red Bulls are finalizing a deal for English striker Ashley Fletcher to join the club on loan from Watford FC of the English Premier League.

On Thursday afternoon, reporter Tom Barclay stated that New York manager Gerhard Struber was “a huge fan” of the 26-year-old target man and that the Red Bulls were confident of wrapping up the deal. A US-based source has confirmed to Once A Metro that such a deal is in the final stages and awaiting league office approval.

Fletcher is a product of the storied Manchester United academy, having grown up in the nearby Yorkshire city of Bradford. After seven years in the United youth system, Fletcher departed as a 20-year-old in 2016 first for a moderately fruitful 5-goal loan at Barnsley before joining rival Premier League club West Ham United on a permanent basis that summer. After a single goalless season in East London, Fletcher moved back up north for a four-year stint at Championship side Middlesbrough where he established his professional bonafides with 28 goals in 108 appearances over four seasons before joining Watford ahead of the current top flight campaign.

Gerhard Struber’s reputed interest is backed up by circumstantial evidence. In late 2019, in Struber’s second match as manager of Barnsley, Fletcher scored a noteworthy goal for Middlesbrough where he delicately rounded both a defender and the keeper with a single swerve.

Such interest is corroborated by the breadcrumb trail left by his current sporting executive Kevin Thelwell. Fletcher was linked to Thelwell’s Wolverhampton Wanderers outfit at various points in 2016 and 2017 when he exited Manchester United for his unsuccessful stint at West Ham.

The 6’1” Fletcher would appear to be a direct replacement and perhaps even an upgrade on Fábio Gomes, the Brazilian target forward who left the Red Bulls this winter following the expiration of his loan from Oeste. Though center forward was not one of the positions cited by Gerhard Struber yesterday as he lamented what he sees as an unsatisfactory transfer window, securing a player of Fletcher’s profile is likely to be met with excitement by the Austrian.

Despite Fábio’s three-inch height advantage on Fletcher, he often struggled to control the long aerial passes used by the Red Bulls to pin opponents back and initiate pressing scenarios. Fletcher meanwhile scored half of his goals via header in his most successful season at Middlesbrough in 2019-20, a proficiency that becomes all the more impressive when considered in the context of the infamously aeronautical and physical English second division.

But Fletcher would also mirror Fábio less flatteringly in having temporary contract with the club. After a season where the club relied on loans to bridge the gap of a long-term squad rebuild, Struber and Thelwell have seen such a strategy contribute to troublesome squad turnover despite the successful retention of Carlos Coronel, Caden Clark, and Tom Edwards. Whether or not Fletcher’s eventual loan has a purchase clause or not is sure to catch the eye of a New York fanbase that has become more accustomed with roster policy minutiae in recent years than they maybe would like to.

But in the meantime, the Red Bulls appear to have added what could be a pivotal final piece to their attacking corps for 2022. Assuming the club’s manager is committed through the year, the “key players” he desires appear to be falling into place.