O'Neill turns to Wickham to cover Fletcher injury

SO CLOSE: Sunderland striker Connor Wickham contemplates defeat at Carrow Road on Sunday night

SO CLOSE: Sunderland striker Connor Wickham contemplates defeat at Carrow Road on Sunday night

First published in Sport The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Sports Reporter

MARTIN O’NEILL will find out the extent of Steven Fletcher’s injury in the next 48 hours, but should he lose the striker for a period of time, the Sunderland manager could call on Connor Wickham to spearhead the Black Cats attack.

Fletcher went off at half time in Sunday’s defeat at Norwich City with an ankle injury and there are fears over the severity of the problem.

Interestingly, though, despite having Fraizer Campbell and Louis Saha fit – the former was on the bench, the latter not – O’Neill gave Wickham a chance to stake his claim in the second half at Carrow Road.

Wickham only has one appearance to his name this season – a two-minute cameo at Everton last month – but the 19-year-old produced an eyecatching display and almost helped the Black Cats equalise after a much-improved second half display.

O’Neill admitted he was encouraged by the display and the Black Cats boss could turn to the former Ipswich man in the coming weeks should Fletcher be unavailable.

“I thought young Connor Wickham applied himself very well and became a bit of a handful for Norwich. That’s encouraging for him.

“I thought he did fine, really fine. He’s been out of the picture, he’s come in and asking him to go and play centreforward as an established player, I thought he did really fine.”

The Black Cats host Chelsea on Saturday looking for only their third win in 14 Premier League games this season and Wickham could be in line to make his first start since last December.

Should that happen, it will be a big moment for the 19- year-old, who was heavily backed to leave the Stadium of Light on loan this season.

There was interest from Ipswich and Sheffield United to take the striker temporarily, but O’Neill recently revealed the striker would definitely not be leaving the club on loan over the busy festive period.

Fletcher is undergoing treatment on his ankle injury this week but there is a big chance the Black Cats will be without the top scorer this weekend.

Since making his £12m move from Wolves in the summer, Fletcher has found the back of the net six times for his new club, and team-mate Craig Gardner admits he will be a big miss should he not recover in time.

He said: “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.”

Gardner pulled a goal back for Sunderland at Carrow Road and almost went close to scoring a second when he saw one effort hit the post and another cleared off the line.

The midfielder was also impressed by Wickham’s contribution in the second half and he revealed the teenager has been working hard to get a chance to shine.

“Fletch has gone off but Connor has come on and been brilliant,” Gardner said.

“He has worked his socks off in training and hopefully he can really push on now.

“Connor has been working solid for a month and more and he’s come on and looked really sharp. It’s nice to see people coming off the bench that are wanting to fight. That’s what we want, we need players that want to fight.”

Meanwhile, Wes Brown is edging closer to making a return 11 months after he last played a competitive game for Sunderland.

The former Manchester United centre-back suffered a knee injury in January’s FA Cup tie against Middlesbrough before breaking down during the club’s pre-season tour of Korea with a recurrence of the problem.

Brown’s defensive partner John O’Shea is also likely to miss Saturday’s game as he continues his recovery from a calf problem.

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