Captain's Blog: Rejuvenated Wickham Can Replicate McClean Impact

Christopher Lee

It has been over a year since Connor Wickham made any kind of impact for Sunderland, but given his performance at Norwich on Sunday, is the talented former-Ipswich man ready to step up and make a similar impact on Wearside to that of James McClean last season?

A team flirting dangerously with the relegation zone who lack zest, confidence, and goals, and desperately starting to scratch around wondering where the next win will come from. Essentially, nothing has really changed much at Sunderland in the last twelve months.

Last year, a raw and fearless young lion of a player stepped up from the bench and turned a game that turned a season. For all his struggles to recapture that impact, James McClean's positive influence on the club at a perilous time can, and should, never be forgotten.

Last week at Carrow Road, history came very close to repeating itself. Whilst a goal down, a young player with something to prove was thrown into the action, and was a Matthew Kilgallon howler away from being the catalyst for a spirited comeback. That player was Connor Wickham.

Wickham is hardly some unknown name thrust into the limelight, admittedly. It seems that ever since he burst into the Ipswich team as a 16-year-old, he has been heralded as a player with the world at his feet.

But in terms of his Sunderland career he has been something of a mystery. No one knew if he is any good. No one knew if he was ever fit. No one knew if Martin O'Neill rated him.

Perhaps we should have known better. He had shown early glimpses of quality. His goal against Aston Villa last season was a sensational piece of forward play, for example. Glimpses were all they were, however. When O'Neill turned to a half-fit Wickham to lead the line in his first game in charge, it looked for all the world like there was a big role for him to play, but months away from the first team picture seemed to muddy those waters.

The fans, of course, have been asking the Wickham question for a while now. He has been getting goals and hugely favourable reviews in the U-21s for both club and country all season, but it was starting to look for all the world like O'Neill had abandoned him. Constantly playing second-fiddle to Fraizer Campbell will do that, I suppose.

The Wickham that strutted onto the pitch at Norwich last week was a completely different proposition for defenders than the one previously seen in a Sunderland shirt, however. This was not a player abandoned and forgotten about. It was one who had clearly seen hours of training ground time invested in him to mold him and polish him up to something almost unrecognizable from the player who often looked uncomfortable on his own legs last season.

"I've spoken to the gaffer before and he told me what I had to do, so I have worked my socks off in training and thankfully he had faith in me today,", said Wickham.

"The manager has told me to hold the ball up and be more aggressive, and I've been doing that more in training and that's why my chance came."

That work certainly appeared to have paid off. He looked bigger, stronger, and more assertive with it. He brushed defenders aside like a school yard bully on a determined wedgie-rampage and then had the touch to make something of just about any ball that came his way. It was an improvement that did not escape his manager's attention, either.

"I thought he did very well for us," enthused O'Neill. "He attempted to get hold of the ball, and that's very encouraging indeed."

It is far too early to be hailing Connor Wickham as the sole saviour of Sunderland's season, obviously. It was a tremendous 45 minutes but 45 minutes is all it was, and consistency alone is the hallmark of class at this level.

He finally looks ready to make an impact, though, and an impact may be all that Sunderland need. Something to shake them out of their slumber. Someone who is willing to cast aside the trepidation that has plagued vast passages of their play this season and take responsibility to make something happen.

Last season that man was James McClean. Perhaps Connor Wickham is now ready and able to pick up that gauntlet and make his mark. The suggestion is that is has always just been a matter of time, and it would certainly be a welcome boost if that time had arrived.

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