O'Neill - Wickham has a chance

First published in Sport The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

MARTIN O'Neill has refused to close the door on Connor Wickham's Sunderland career even though the striker has tumbled down the pecking order in the last 12 months.

Wickham will hope to make his first senior appearance of the season when O'Neill shuffles his pack for this evening's Capital One Cup third round game at MK Dons.

O'Neill must decide whether to rest either Steven Fletcher or Stephane Sessegnon ahead of this weekend's Premier League home game with Wigan, and with Fraizer Campbell struggling with the foot injury that forced his early withdrawal at West Ham at the weekend, Wickham is a leading alternative alongside Louis Saha.

The 19-year-old had been expected to leave on loan when the Championship loan window opened at the start of the month, but despite interest from a number of clubs, he remains on Wearside and was an unused substitute at Upton Park.

He underlined his attacking capabilities with two goals in last week's reserves draw with Newcastle, and O'Neill is hoping the brace boosted the confidence of a player who cost £8.1m when Steve Bruce signed him from Ipswich in June 2011.

"He scored two goals for the reserves and had to be there in the right position to score them," said the Sunderland boss. "Goals will give any centre-forward a bit of confidence and that's something that he needs. All centre-forwards do.

"He's been out of the picture for a little while and has seen some other players come in and play in that position. But I'm sure he's up for the battle in terms of trying to win a place in the team."

O'Neill is expected to make a number of changes this evening as Sunderland attempt to see off lower-league opposition in the League Cup for the second round in a row.

Seb Larsson is unavailable after injuring his hamstring at the weekend, Titus Bramble is likely to make way for Matt Kilgallon, and Keiren Westwood is expected to replace Simon Mignolet in goal.

There will be no place for Adam Johnson, who continues to struggle with the thigh problem he picked up while on international duty with England, but the terms of Danny Rose's season-long loan from Tottenham mean he is eligible to line up at Stadium MK.

"We've got a couple of players who are struggling at the moment so we'll have to make some changes," said O'Neill. "They'll be forced upon us. Campbell and Seb Larsson for a start. Titus might find it difficult to play three games in a week for us at the moment.

"It's a difficult game for us. We'd like to try and stay in the competition if we can. We went pretty strong against Morecambe but changes will be forced upon us."

O'Neill cited a cup success as one of his major ambitions when he moved to the Stadium of Light last December, and the Black Cats boss oversaw a decent FA Cup run that ended with a quarter-final defeat to Everton last term.

March's replay defeat to the Toffees had a devastating impact on the rest of Sunderland's season, indeed the Wearsiders have still not recorded a Premier League victory since.

Tonight's game is clearly not of the same magnitude, but O'Neill is well aware of the detrimental impact that a cup defeat can have in terms of stalling momentum and checking progress.

"In the (Everton) match itself itself the crowd had turned up in their droves," he said. "To be fair they had done for most of the games, we had 40,000 people watching us against Bolton in the third-last game of the season.

"That (the Everton defeat) was really disappointing and deflated us perhaps more than I thought at the time, even though we had a great performance a few days later against Manchester City at the Etihad (when they drew 3-3). Looking back, it had an impact."

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