Fletcher to have late test as Wickham waits for big chance

STEVEN FLETCHER will undergo a late fitness check this morning before Martin O'Neill decides whether to risk the £12m striker for the first of three important Premier League fixtures inside eight days.

And if the Scotland international's troubled ankle is not deemed satisfactory there will be greater focus on teenager Connor Wickham against Chelsea today.

The 19-year-old is yet to start a game this season for the Black Cats but would be a front-runner along with Louis Saha to start when Rafael Benitez brings the Blues to the Stadium of Light.

It was Wickham, who replaced Fletcher at Carrow last Sunday, that helped inspire a better second half from Sunderland, who ended up losing 2-1 after a frustrating opening period.

Regardless of whether or not the England Under-21s striker faces Chelsea, though, O'Neill wants the club's fans to be realistic and not to expect too much from the £8.1m teenager.

The Sunderland manager, knowing his team face Reading on Tuesday and then a trip to Manchester United next weekend, said: "Don't start reading everything into a 45 minute performance. I thought he did really well in the game and he wants to show more aggression. He wants to show that himself.

“Now's the time for him to start performing and getting something out of these games, not just letting the minutes on the field pass him by.”

It was 12 months last Monday when O'Neill agreed to succeed Steve Bruce on Wearside and Wickham's chances have been largely limited to second-string football.

But O'Neill senses the former Ipswich man might be ready to grab his chance.

“I've been here exactly a year and Connor played in my first game (against Blackburn) because (Nicklas) Bendtner wasn't available,” he said.

“Connor came in and played in the next game and came off injured against Tottenham so he's found his career standing still since then, certainly at club level. But he's addressing it and that's the most important thing.

“It's entirely up to the player. We're doing a lot of work with him and the young players after training but the biggest thing for Connor is that he wants to do it and he wants to improve. He has the physique and natural attributes so it's really up to him.”

Despite Fletcher's ankle problem – which O'Neill was not even prepared to rate at 50-50 yesterday morning – James McFadden is still not in the manager's thinking.

McFadden has played up front in the past, although the Sunderland manager thinks the former Everton man's first appearance for the club is likely to be out wide.

The 29-year-old will become a free agent again in January and has been waiting for a chance to impress.

O'Neill, who signed McFadden on a short-term deal in October, said: "James hasn't started a game. James came in and he'd done a little bit of pre-season but he's come in very late.

“It's been difficult for him because he plays in a position where we've got some really talented players who are looking to find their best form in James McClean and Adam Johnson so it's been difficult for James. But he's getting to a certain level of fitness now and it's quite pleasing.”

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