Connor Wickham began his Sunderland career struggling with price-tag pressure on his young shoulders. But recent improvements could signal a brighter future on Wearside, says Neil Cameron
MARTIN O’Neill spoke warmly and at length yesterday about a much-wanted and in-form £12m international striker whom he hoped could solve some of Sunderland’s current problems.
But this was not a case of the Irishman talking up a January transfer target. It was someone already at his club, someone with a grand total of four minutes’ action this season.
Connor Wickham (remember him?) made his first appearance of the season for Sunderland’s senior team last week when he came on after 89 minutes had passed at Goodison Park.
He didn’t touch the ball. Even in injury time.
Sheffield Wednesday, among others, want him on loan, and that deal may well happen, but the teenager is staying at the Stadium of Light for the moment because, quite simply, Sunderland don’t have a big enough squad to let anyone leave.
To be kept on because the manager needs numbers to make up the bench is hardly a ringing endorsement, but Wickham may be called upon because his team needs something to happen and soon.
The striker arrived on Wearside from Ipswich Town 18 months ago for a rather ridiculous fee of £8.1m, a figure that is set to rise by another £4m when, or perhaps that should be if, his career takes off and he becomes an England international.
That sort of price tag for a 17-year-old Championship player did him no favours. Is it really any wonder he has struggled at Sunderland, where he has made 17 appearances and scored just one goal?
O’Neill, however, has seen some improvement for a young man who has almost become forgotten about among Sunderland supporters, despite the 19-year-old – incredibly, he doesn’t turn 20 until March – scoring three goals in the past four games for England’s under-21s.
The manager can sympathise with Wickham, who didn’t ask for Steve Bruce to make him out to be the next great hope of English football, and hinted there may well be a future on Wearside for the lad.
O’Neill said: “Connor has trained very well the last few weeks and in an ideal world it would have been better to get games in on loan somewhere, but we can’t afford to do that.
“He has to keep going and has the potential to be a really decent player. He’s been working exceptionally well with (coach) Steve Guppy every single morning. Connor has a strong appetite since arriving here.
“Although he had never kicked a ball in the Premier League, the fee the football club paid put him under pressure to perform and he now has to put that to the side and get on with his game.
“He is very young and I do think there was pressure on him and that might not have been anything to do with him originally, but there was pressure to go and become an instant success.
“He has loads of time and he is improving; more importantly he wants to improve, which is very encouraging. Some things happen too quickly and he is realising this is a tough old business.”
Had Sunderland been able to send Wickham out on loan, it would be by some distance the best thing for him if it was the case there was no chance of him making any impact on the first-team.
Indeed, you could argue that a permanent move is what his career needs because right now it is going nowhere.
However, Wickham has told O’Neill that he is desperate to make it at Sunderland and nowhere else. It’s the right attitude to show for this particular manager.
O’Neill said: “Connor wants to prove himself and prove himself here. A few weeks ago when Sheffield Wednesday asked about him and a few others as well, I would have considered it because it would have been great, but I have not had the wherewithal so I hope he will come through here.
“As I said, he has loads of time but I am hoping he can be the player he wants to be.
“We have had a number of conversations, although not recently other than for me to say that I thought he was doing very well in training to give him encouragement.
“Connor is still very young, but he is very strong. In fact sometimes I don’t think he realises how strong he is. He needs to add aspects to his game he maybe thought were there but might have deserted him.
“But he has capabilities – it is doing it out there (on the pitch).”
So for the moment Wickham is staying where he is.
O’Neill said: “Sheffield Wednesday did ask, but we just don’t have the players (to let him out on loan).
“I let David Meyler go out because he needed games.
“It could have been a possibility for Connor to go out, but we have seven games in a month and even if it is an emergency you can’t get anyone back after 28 days so we don’t have the wherewithal to do it.” Another player O’Neill has felt the need to speak to, and not for the first time, is James McClean.
The Irish international caused a bit of controversy last weekend by deciding not to wear a poppy on his shirt.
O’Neill, who himself is a Catholic from Northern Ireland, could well do without having to deal with this non-football issue, but he did back his man’s personal stance, which stems from his background.
He said: “James wasn’t aware until very late on there was a poppy worn and it was his choice not to do it, of course. I have empathy with that knowing his background, and I think it is a choice.”