CONNOR WICKHAM was last night rewarded with the Barclays player of the month award for his goals which gave Sunderland's fight to beat the drop a real boost before being warned to maintain his excellent performance levels.
After three years of trying to justify his price-tag and show greater signs of fulfilling his potential, Wickham has delivered at just the right time this season after Gustavo Poyet turned to him to lead the line.
But Poyet will work closely with the young striker in a bid to embraces his new lease of life on Wearside in the hope of seeing the £8.1m man finally come of age.
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"Between him first, us and his family, we have to make sure he keeps his feet on the ground,” said Poyet. “It cannot be the opposite way around. That is part of the job as a manager, trying to keep a player grounded.
“You can't let him get too high. Just like the group, you cannot let them get too high after a few results. That is part of the job right now because everything is going right for Connor.
“I said a few weeks ago, if we could get a player of the month, we could win a few games. I was hoping this month we would get Fabio Borini or Adam Johnson again, but it's great that it's Connor.”
Wickham's five goals in his last three games have finally proven he can handle the Premier League stage, which secured the April gong yesterday. He had only scored one league goal for the club since arriving in June 2011 before that.
The poor form of Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher meant Poyet had to give the 21-year-old a chance and he has grasped the opportunity. He had previously struggled to earn a decent run in the team under the Uruguayan and managerial predecessors Paolo Di Canio, Martin O'Neill and Steve Bruce.
The England Under-21 international's brilliant recent return in front of goal has helped Sunderland pick up seven points from the last three matches. The reality is, though, that Poyet needs his rejuvenated forward to keep delivering in the last eight days of the season.
A failure to win at least one, possibly two, of the remaining games with Manchester United today, West Brom on Wednesday or Swansea City a week tomorrow, and Sunderland could be playing Championship football next season.
Conversely if Sunderland win at Old Trafford for the first time since 1968 then there is a chance the Black Cats will be safe.
"It is incredible,” said Poyet. “When we were poor, we were just trying to drill into the players that they had to go onto the pitch believing they could win. We were trying to find a solution.
“Now, it is still the same. We have done plenty of things to make sure we are in control. We have to try to be calm and the confidence will be there in the last few games.
“The idea is to go out and perform and if we do that on Saturday, the result will come with the performance. Then we look to Wednesday and then to Sunday. We have to try to win at Man United because if we can get the win we need, then the extra game in midweek will be the key.”
The challenge facing Sunderland is to overcome a Manchester United squad lifted by the departure of David Moyes and the installation of Ryan Giggs in a caretaker capacity.
Giggs' first game was a 4-0 triumph over Norwich City, but the suggestions are that he will not be handed the managerial reins on a full-time basis. Holland manager Louis Van Gaal is in pole position.
Poyet, who was on a UEFA A-level coaching badge course with Giggs during their playing days, thinks Manchester United's decision makers could do a lot worse than stick with the Welshman for the longer term.
He said: "I think Ryan Giggs is perfect for management. Giggs was really into the coaching sessions. He was strong on wanting to be a coach and a manager. It is all about the person, whether they want to be a coach or a manager.”
Poyet added: "From what I know about Ryan, he knows about everything that's happening at that club. He knows the players, he knows why they have been so successful and knows what they're doing and why they're' doing it.
“You can't copy Sir Alex Ferguson, that would be impossible, but he'll know plenty of things because he's been there. If Van Gaal comes with all his knowledge of the game then I suppose he's going to change things. You can guarantee that.”
Poyet will be doing everything he can do lead Sunderland to three points today to give Giggs a headache he would prefer not to endure – just months after Manchester United were left deflated after losing the Capital One Cup semi-final on penalties.
Poyet said: "That achievement and celebration brings with it a possibility for us to do well again. That's not saying we're going to win because of it, of course.
"The idea's to go there with belief. We did it in the cup, it's true that we lost the game, and nobody remembers that, but the way we finished and the celebrations afterwards gave us the feeling that we won that day. The aim is now to win two games to stay up.”