Sunderland head into their biggest game of the season against Cardiff City tomorrow with striker Connor Wickham having emerged as an unlikely talisman. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson met the 21-year-old and discovered a player determined to continue turning his career around
ROUNDLY written off after a series of sub-standard displays, but suddenly experiencing a renaissance after superb performances against Manchester City and Chelsea – the story of Sunderland’s season mirrors the narrative of Connor Wickham’s career.
So as the Black Cats head into tomorrow’s pivotal relegation encounter with Cardiff City looking to pull off what had looked the unlikeliest of great escapes, it is fitting that their attacking hopes rest in the hands of a player who is also attempting to confound those who had given up on him.
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Signed for £8.1m amid great fanfare as an 18-year-old, it is something of an understatement to claim that Wickham’s time with Sunderland has not gone as planned.
He barely featured under Steve Bruce, was packed away on loan by Martin O’Neill and, like so many others, found his attitude and demeanour questioned by Paolo Di Canio. Initially, even Gustavo Poyet was deeply sceptical about his abilities.
Yet as the rest of Sunderland’s strikers have fallen by the wayside, due to a lack of fitness in the case of Steven Fletcher or form when it comes to Jozy Altidore, Wickham has found himself thrust into the spotlight.
For the first time in his Black Cats career, he is the club’s undisputed number one. For the first time in his Black Cats career, he has responded with the kind of displays that once saw him touted as the most exciting young striker in England.
“It's been a tough three years, although I don't think I'm behind schedule,” said Wickham. “It’s not been tough in terms of settling in, but obviously there was a lot of hype and a lot of talk about me when I was at Ipswich, and that was nothing I could control.
“I was just playing football, and there was a lot of publicity at the time. When I signed for Sunderland, I was happy, but then the manager who signed me left (Bruce) and I got injured just when it looked as if I may be getting into the team.
“In a way, it has been a disruptive time but, in the last year or so, something has just happened inside me. I feel different. I am feeling good.
“Something just clicked. I can't really say what it is to be honest. I guess I have matured a lot since I came here. Maybe I have become a bit cleverer. I have certainly adapted more, especially since my loan spell at Sheffield (Wednesday) this season.
“That helped, and my performances and goals there caught the manager's eye. He brought me back, and now I am back on the track maybe everyone expected me to be on three or four years ago.”
Having spent a month on loan at Hillsborough towards the end of the 2012-13 season, Wickham returned to South Yorkshire midway through the current campaign, scoring eight goals in 11 Championship games.
He returned to Wearside briefly in late January, appearing as a substitute in the 2-0 home defeat to Hull City, so it must have been especially demoralising when he was called back into the manager’s office within a matter of weeks and packed off again to Leeds.
At that stage, plenty of other players might have mentally drawn a line under their time at the Stadium of Light. Even at his most difficult moments, however, Wickham continued to believe things would turn.
“I always knew I would get a chance eventually because football is such and up and down game,” he said. “Someone can get injured in training or just hit a spell when things don't go right or are just not happening “I always knew my chance would come. It was just a matter of waiting, being patient and making sure that when it did come, I took it.”
Such stoicism requires formidable mental strength, not to mention an unwavering work ethic, even when things are not going well.
Di Canio memorably accused Wickham of being more interested in the T-shirt he was wearing to training than what he was actually doing on the field, but speak to the 21-year-old’s team-mates, or those involved in working with him now, and a very different picture appears.
It is evident that Wickham’s father Stefan, a former member of the Army who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, has been a major influence on both his life and career.
When a teenage Wickham moved to the North-East, his entire family, including mother, Nicky, and brother, Ryan, moved with him. Their support over the last three years has clearly played a major role in enabling Wickham to ride out the peaks and troughs he has encountered.
“My dad has been so important to me,” he said. “He has never missed a match I’ve played in since I was a boy, apart from when he was serving abroad. He always made sure I had the best kit, the best boots, the best shin pads and he went everywhere to watch me. I owe my family an awful lot.
“My dad always stressed to me the importance of being on time. Also, if I wanted to go training, he taught me to make sure my kit was washed and everything was sorted out correctly.
“I wouldn’t say he was strict, but there was always a line of respect I knew I would never cross with my dad or mum.”
Wickham’s reward for refusing to throw in the towel was a starting spot in this month’s game at Manchester City, with his two goals at the Etihad Stadium kick-starting Sunderland’s survival push.
He scored again at Chelsea four days later as the Black Cats became the first side to beat Jose Mourinho in a league game at Stamford Bridge, with the victory lifting Sunderland to within three points of safety ahead of tomorrow’s showdown with Cardiff.
Wickham has been the key figure in re-energising Sunderland’s survival battle. And in doing so, he has all but presented the title to the side he once called his own.
“I’m a Liverpool fan,” he admitted. “A couple of people who know I’m a Liverpool fan have mentioned it on Twitter, and I’ve had a few Reds thanking me for giving them a five-point lead at the top, but I was just in the right place at the right time and scored the goals.
“The most important thing is that the goals have helped us out. If we perform like we have in the last few games, I am confident we can be safe.”