HE arrived as a 18-year-old with the expectation of an £8m price tag on his shoulders, but three years later Sunderland head coach Gus Poyet finally believes it is Connor Wickham’s time.
Signed by Steve Bruce as a highly-rated teenager after two impressive seasons in the Championship with Ipswich Town, Wickham’s big move to the Premier League didn’t get off to the best of starts.
His struggle for opportunities continued under Martin O’Neill and Paolo Di Canio with the Colchester-born forward never really regarded as anything more than a squad player by the pair.
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The same could be said about the early days of Poyet’s reign, the Uruguayan decided it would be more beneficial to send Wickham out on loan to Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United, however suddenly the 21-year-old finds himself right at the centre of Sunderland’s fight for survival.
His brace in Wednesday night’s frustrating draw at Manchester City was minutes away from giving the Wearsiders hope they can avoid the drop and with another tough battle to come against Chelsea and Stamford Bridge today, Poyet believes it is Wickham’s time to shine.
“I think he’s got everything to play in England,” the Black Cats head coach said. “He’s strong, he’s big, he’s got an incredible shot with power. He likes to link-up. Of course, he needs to learn certain things and how we play at certain times.
“I didn’t want him to be taking long throws, because he should be heading it. Now he isn’t taking throws. He gave up something in order to do something for the team and that is learning and adapting.
“It’s about timing. Maybe the time is now, maybe he needed to go through that spell for him to stand up and maybe we needed to be in this situation for him to play week in week out.
“The more he plays and the more he performs, the better chance we’ll have. The most important thing is for him to score, because he will be totally different in the next few games. My challenge is to keep him in that state of mind. Focused. Not ‘I’ve scored two goals I can relax.’ We are all different. How many players in the world score one goal and that’s it, they’re done? Another will try to score ten in a game. It’s different mentalities and we need to use him.
“I’m learning. He’s been with us in total for a month-and-a-half and everyday we need to use him and get to know him and see how he reacts. When he performs, what happens the day after? Saturday at 3pm is the most important time because that is when everybody will see and it depends how you are prepared. That’s a big responsibility for us as coaches.”
While there has been a string of managers that have opted to play others rather than give Wickham a chance, Poyet refuses to pin the blame on any individual. Instead, the Sunderland head coach believes Wickham has been the victim of difficult situations where managers haven’t had enough time to nurture the talent he arrived with.
He said: “I think it depends on the time you get as a coach or as a manager with a young player.
“If you go out and buy a young player for £8m, how long have you got to make him the player that you want or whether he needs to perform tomorrow.
“The biggest improvement I have seen in a player in the Premier League is Cristiano Ronaldo. When he arrived at Manchester he was just a tricky player doing oversteps. Two years later he was the best in the world. Why? Because Man United took him in a certain way and it didn’t matter how much they paid for him. They had time to let him grow up slowly and make him a football player with the mentality of the club. Maybe at other clubs when you spend £8m on a player you want to see something straight away. Players can have potential but sometimes you don’t get the time to work with them.
“Every single club in England was looking at him and that is why the price was therefore quite high. I think it would be silly of me to blame one person who was here and had Connor for many years.
“We are trying to make him understand what we want from him and not what happened before. How much we take care of the ball, how important it is he uses his body well when he’s in the box.
“He was not really looking at his performances in game or for the team it was more about him because everybody was looking at him.
“I think that he needs to learn certain aspects of play. How many managers would say they have got time to play 18 year-old Connor Wickham in ten, 15, 20 games? No chance. If he scores, yes, because it gives him confidence.
“Maybe he needed that run in the team that others had but he never got it. In the situation we are in he can take advantage for himself because he is playing week in week out because that’s the best thing that can happen for Connor.”