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O'Neill: 'Wickham's Sunderland career is not at an end'
MARTIN O'Neill is adamant Connor Wickham still has a bright future at Sunderland despite the striker joining Sheffield Wednesday on a month-long loan.
Wickham, who has barely had a look in since O'Neill replaced Steve Bruce 14 months ago, moved to Hillsborough yesterday and is set to make his Wednesday debut in today's Championship game with Derby.
The England under-21 international has made just two senior starts all season, and has grown frustrated at his lack of involvement at the Stadium of Light.
The loan move gives him an opportunity to get his faltering club career back on track, but O'Neill does not regard it as the beginning of the end for a player who cost £8.1m when he left Ipswich in the summer of 2011.
"He will go out as a Sunderland player and come back as a Sunderland player," said the Black Cats boss, ahead of this afternoon's Premier League game with Arsenal. "Importantly, that's what he feels as well, which is good.
"He genuinely wants to do it here. He does not want to leave the football club, but he has to concern himself less about what has gone before - being an up-and-coming young kid with a big price tag - and just go and concentrate on his game. That is what he is trying to do.
"I do believe there has been an improvement in his game, but at the moment, if we are starting centre-forwards and playing the system we are, (Steven) Fletcher goes in the team.
"It has been a wee bit frustrating for him and he needs a run of games. He needs two or three consecutive starts, which I have not been able to afford him here."
Wickham becomes the fifth attacking player to have left Sunderland since the turn of the year, following Fraizer Campbell, who has joined Cardiff, Ji Dong-won, who is on loan at Augsburg, and Louis Saha and James McFadden, who were both released.
While Danny Graham arrived on transfer-deadline day, the Black Cats are effectively left with just two centre-forwards. Stephane Sessegnon has played as an auxiliary attacker for the majority of the campaign, but the lack of cover is a concern and for the next four weeks, O'Neill admits he will be keeping his fingers crossed.
"I've had to balance the good of the club against the needs of the player in the short term," he said. "If it rebounds it is my decision because the rules stipulate that there's no recall before 28 days.
"We have three games in that period, but the side who want him (Sheffield Wednesday) play five games in that time. Do I think that will be of benefit to the player? Absolutely."
Wickham established a lofty reputation after breaking through at Portman Road, and Sunderland had to beat off sustained interest from Liverpool to secure his signature two summers ago.
Since then, he has struggled to make an impression in the top-flight, with his first-team opportunities limited even though he has regularly scored goals at reserve and England under-21 level.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 19-year-old's price tag has weighed heavy on his shoulders, and while he seems to have been around for quite a while now, it is important not to lose sight of just how young he is.
"Maybe there have been unfair expectations," conceded O'Neill. "That's the case if you start so young. If you've played 15 to 20 consecutive first-team games, then no matter what the division is, there'll be a big expectation and people saying, 'Gosh, what will he be like when he's 21?'
"Then you move for a sizeable amount of money and the expectations get higher. Those things can weigh on a 27-year-old, never mind someone who's 17. But I think he's coming to terms with all that and if he gets an opportunity, let's see what he can do."
Keiren Westwood is another player to have expressed frustration at his lack of involvement this season, but while Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni might prefer Sunderland's second-choice goalkeeper to leave the Stadium of Light, O'Neill remains adamant he will be going nowhere.
"Keiren has made no secret he would like to go out and get some games," he said. "Although he has never asked to leave the club permanently.
"I said to him I would do it if I really thought we could, but the teams that asked for him didn't want him for a month, they wanted him until the end of the season. In that case, I might as well just put up the charity sign.
"It is interesting that some of the teams who have been asking about my players have more players than I have, even though they're in the Championship. I keep telling them that."