MARTIN O’Neill admits he is taking a risk sending Connor Wickham on loan, but the gamble has been too great to allow Keiren Westwood much-needed football.
Wickham is set to make his Sheffield Wednesday debut at home to Derby County today, and will be available for four more Championship games.
With no option to recall him, it leaves Sunderland short of strikers for a run of three games starting at home to Arsenal today. Steven Fletcher and Danny Graham are the only remaining out-and-out centre-forwards, while Stéphane Sessègnon plays as a second striker.
Fraizer Campbell joined Cardiff City last month, Louis Saha this week joined Lazio, Ji Dong-won is on loan at Augsburg and James McFadden has been released.
“I had to look at the risk factor involved and see,” said manager O’Neill. “We have three games and (in that period) and (Wednesday) play five games in that time, although he may not start today.
“Do I think it would be of benefit to the player? Absolutely. You are always running that risk, particularly with us not having biggest squad.
“It has been a wee bit frustrating for him, he needs two or three consecutive starts, which I have not been able to afford him here.
“I will go see the games myself. It is just getting those starts and that proper match-fitness.
“It is a risk and it can backfire – we could get two injuries tomorrow, I understand that, but I am hoping it will be beneficial to everyone.”
Wickham has only made consecutive starts twice for Sunderland. The last time was O’Neill’s first two games, and before that he played three in a row under Steve Bruce.
The 19-year-old headed the last goal in England Under-21s’ 4-0 win over Sweden on Tuesday, his fourth for them this season. O’Neill is not ready to write off the teenager who, at £8.1m, was Sunderland’s most expensive.
“I know there is a mile of difference between Under-21 and Premier League football but I think he wants to start more often,” he said. “I am balancing it on the good of the club and the player in the short term and the good of the club in the long term. If it rebounds it is my decision.
“He will go out as a Sunderland player and come back as a Sunderland player and more importantly he feels that, which is good. He genuinely wants to do it here, he does not want to leave.
“He has to concern himself less – and he has done now – about being an up-and-coming young kid with a big price tag and just concentrate on his game.
“I do believe there has been an improvement but if we are starting centre-forwards, playing the system we are, Fletcher goes in the team.”
Sunderland were unhappy Republic of Ireland assistant manager Marco Tardelli said this week Westwood asked to leave in January – something he and manager Giovanni Trapattoni actively encouraged.
“Keiren has made no secret he would like to go out and get some games, but he has never asked to leave permanently,” he insisted.
“At the season end we can have a look at things. I can understand his position, he is a talented keeper and he really wants to play in someone’s first team.”
O’Neill might have allowed that had the loan options been less risky.
He said: “His agent has talked about sending him out on loan and, in an ideal world, I would if I really thought we could afford to, but the teams didn’t want him for the month, they wanted him until the end of the season.
“I might as well just put up the charity sign. Some of the teams who have been asking about my players have more players than I have – and they are in the Championship!”
Carlos Cuellar and Lee Cattermole are doubts for today’s game, O’Neill’s 50th in the Premier League with Sunderland, with hamstring and knee injuries respectively.