CONNOR Wickham has been backed to fill the hole left by Steven Fletcher’s ankle injury after leaping to the front of the queue to replace the Sunderland striker.
Wickham was one of a clutch of strikers completely overlooked by manager Martin O’Neill until Sunday’s half-time introduction at Norwich City.
The 19-year-old had a goal disallowed for offside during a vastly-improved second-half showing by the visitors.
With top-scorer Fletcher injuring his ankle to give Wickham his chance, Craig Gardner believes Sunderland’s most expensive teenager is ready to take his chance.
The midfielder admitted: “It’s a big blow to lose Fletch. He’s different class.
“Everyone was questioning how much money he came here for. There’s a big price tag on him but he has proved everybody wrong and he’s different class. He’s a top-class person to have around the place.
“Fletch went off at Carrow Road but Connor came on and was brilliant.
“He has worked his socks off in training and hopefully he can really push on now. We can’t hide behind one player or put our
heads down.” Fletcher and Wickham have responded differently to the pressure of a hefty price tag.
When Sunderland paid £12m to take Fletcher from Wolverhampton Wanderers, received wisdom was they had overvalued the Scotland striker.
However, having scored six of their 13 Premier League goals this season, Fletcher has been crucial to the Black Cats.
No details of the extent of Fletcher’s injury have been forthcoming from the Stadium of Light, but a lengthy lay-off would be a major concern.
Wickham appears to have been weighed down by the £8.1m (plus add-ons) Sunderland paid Ipswich Town for him the previous summer.
He has scored just one club goal since and has been restricted to six starts.
Until Sunday, Wickham’s only first-team involvement this term had been as an 89th-minute substitute at Everton, where his main contribution was a long throw-in.
O’Neill was full of praise for the job Wickham – who he tried to sign as Aston Villa manager – did in East Anglia.
He said: “I thought young Connor Wickham applied himself very well and became a bit of a handful for Norwich. That’s encouraging for him.
“He’s been out of the picture, he has come in and asking him to play centre-forward as an established player, I thought he did fine.”
Summer Bosman signing Louis Saha is the striker O’Neill has turned to most often as his Plan B this season, coming off the bench ten times in the league.
However, after another ineffective substitute display, this time at home to Queens Park Rangers, Saha did not even make the bench at Norwich, despite travelling.
The former Newcastle United loanee is still searching for his first Sunderland goal.
Wickham has praised O’Neill’s role in his development.
He said: “I’ve spoken to the gaffer before and he told me what I had to do, so I have worked my socks off in training and thankfully he had faith in me.
“The manager has told me to hold the ball up and be more aggressive and I’ve been doing that more in training and that’s why my chance came.
“When I came on against Norwich I thought I did that. Now it’s about getting that match sharpness.
“ I’ve known all along I was capable of coming in and doing a job and I was excited to be able to get a game.
“I was hungry for more after my first appearance of the season but after that I was left out.
“That spurred me on to get my head down even more and work. Hopefully, this is the start of my season.”