Wickham's big enough to stand tall in Premier League

First published in Sport The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Chief Football/Golf Writer

IT'S not just at Sunderland, but during difficult runs the mood can be quite tense post-match when players are asked questions about their failings.

But there was a sense that the strains of a poor return of just one win from their previous eight matches had suddenly been lifted at Bolton.

Even those players that did not make it on to the pitch appeared in jovial mood. Times, it will hoped on Wearside, are about to take a turn for the better. It needs to.

Steve Bruce has always maintained he has not felt under pressure, not to the extent of the pressure he once felt during a poor run at Birmingham, any way.

And as he worked his way through his media interviews after the 2-0 win over the Trotters, he joked: 'So was that the right team selection then?' It would seem so.

It was a key decision from Bruce to leave out his skipper, Lee Cattermole. Opting for the very similar midfield combo of David Vaughan and Jack Colback in the middle, which was effective.

But it was the starting role he afforded Connor Wickham that proved the most telling. It was not that Wickham was outstanding, just that his presence allowed Bruce to do things a little differently going forward.

When Seb Larsson was swapped to his preferred right-midfield role for the second half, Sunderland dominated and Stephane Sessegnon – playing on the left but roaming all over – looked more like the player who made a reputation for tormenting defences in France.

Having moved to play Wickham, he can no longer claim he is not ready. Perhaps there are times when the 18-year-old will need protecting, but the young striker must stand up and be counted like everyone else in the dressing room.

At £8.1m Sunderland can't afford to play him sparingly to give him experience for the next few years like a Manchester United or Chelsea may do. Bruce needs his big summer buy to tick now.

And Wickham, a 6ft-plus powerhouse for a teenager, showed enough on Saturday to suggest he can cope with the rigours of the Premier League. After all he made his full league debut in the Championship shortly after his 16th birthday for Ipswich Town.

There were moments at Bolton when Wickham showed his lack of experience, like overlooking the easy pass to a team-mate in favour of going it alone.

But, overall, there was plenty for Bruce and the Sunderland fans to be encouraged by.

Wickham – three years older than Derby County's debutant Mason Bennett at Middlesbrough on Saturday - might have looked short in his substitute appearances, but at Bolton he looked every bit an England Under-21 international.

Now Bruce must make sure Wickham builds on his promising start.

It is not the time to protect the expensive teenager by taking him in and out of the starting line-up. Bruce must make a man out of Wickham, which could be the kickstart Sunderland have been looking for.

***************************************** IT was nice to hear Middlesbrough goalkeeper Jason Steele silence a few of his critics yesterday.

How a young prospect can be criticised in his first few matches back after a long lay-off with a broken wrist bone is beyond me.

None of the three goals which he had conceded in his first two outings were his fault.

And against Derby on Saturday he made saves to highlight his enormous potential.

Locally produced talents, in whatever position, deserve to be backed - particularly when they have done nothing wrong.

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