CONNOR WICKHAM remains determined to prove himself at Sunderland, but will ask to leave on loan for the third time in his Black Cats career if his first-team prospects do not improve in the next few weeks.
Wickham was recalled from a loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday at the end of last month, but has made just 35 minutes worth of substitute appearances since his return to Wearside.
Touted as one of the most promising young players in the country when he made an £8.1m move from Ipswich Town in the summer of 2011, the 20-year-old has made just nine league starts in the best part of three seasons as his career has stagnated.
He still harbours ambitions of proving himself with Sunderland, although with his contract due to expire at the end of next season, time is clearly running out.
A recent clear-the-air meeting with Gustavo Poyet confirmed there is still a chance of him making it with the Black Cats, but with a host of Championship clubs having expressed an interest in acquiring his services, he is reluctant to kick his heels in the reserves during the final two-and-a-half months of the season.
“I’ve spoken to the manager and he’s just said I’m in his plans and told me what I need to do,” said Wickham, who scored eight goals in 11 games during his most recent spell at Hillsborough. “I’ve gone in and asked what I need to do to get into the team because I don’t want to just be sitting on the bench.
“I’ve just come back from a loan spell so I’m sharp and ready. I can’t wait to get on to the pitch and prove my worth here.
“The Premier League is better than any league in the world, so if I can play here, that’s my main goal. But it’s down to the manager whether I’m going to be involved in the games or not.
“Hopefully, if I’m not, I can go back out on loan. That’s yet to be decided, but I’m here now so my main focus is getting into the team.”
With a significant fixture backlog because of Sunderland’s continued interest in both cup competitions, you get the feeling that if Wickham cannot force his way into the first-team picture in the next couple of months, he will never enjoy a sustained run of involvement with the senior side.
Signed by Steve Bruce, he initially found himself behind Asamoah Gyan, Nicklas Bendtner and Fraizer Campbell in the pecking order. Martin O’Neill could not find a way to fit him into his preferred system, regarding the striker as too much of a target man to suit his style, while Paolo Di Canio famously criticised his choice of fashion wear and implied he was more interested in his clothes than his work on the training ground.
Those who know Wickham well claim such pejorative comments are unfair, but it remains to be seen whether Gus Poyet is any more enamoured with the qualities that have made the youngster a regular for the England under-21 team and saw Liverpool battling with Sunderland for his signature almost three years ago.
The initial signs are hardly positive, with Poyet having splashed out £4m to sign Ignacio Scocco last month, but Wickham is refusing to throw in the towel as he attempts to live up to a price tag that has proved something of a millstone around his neck.
“I believe I can be a success here,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting minutes on the pitch. All I can do is try to score. I did that on Saturday, and I’ll do it in every game I can.
“I don’t feel the pressure of expectations. It’s not my fault that the clubs agreed the fee of whatever it was. I made the move and I’ve not played as much football as I would have liked so it’s down to me to work hard on the training pitch.
“I’m 21 next month so I’ve still got plenty of time in football ahead of me hopefully. I’ve still got a year-and-a-half here, so my main aim is to get into this team, push it forward and get us away from the bottom of the league.”
Saturday’s substitute appearance saw Wickham win some useful possession, although his best chance of a more meaningful contribution disappeared when he failed to pass to Fabio Borini after breaking through in the latter stages of the game.
He remains behind Scocco, Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher in the attacking pecking order, but should remain in the squad for Saturday’s league trip to Arsenal.
“I’ve got nothing to lose,” he said. “I’ve not been playing, so whatever time I get on the pitch, I’ve just got to do what I’m told the best I can. That’s what I tried to do on Saturday.
“I only got 20 minutes, but 20 minutes is better than none. Hopefully, I will be in the gaffer’s mind for Arsenal.”
* Sunderland’s development side claimed a 2-0 win at Wolves yesterday afternoon thanks to goals from Liam Agnew and Jordan Laidler.