Connor Wickham is back. Well, for now anyway. He even made it onto the pitch in the defeat to Hull City on the weekend and Gus Poyet admitted he would have been used against Stoke City had Phil Bardsley not picked up an injury during that game. Given the number of fixtures coming up and the lack of fit and available strikers at the club, there will surely be more chances to come.
In theory, this could be a huge opportunity for the ex-Ipswich Town man. He's only 20 years of age, but with his contract heading into its final year this summer, it's starting to feel like make or break time for him on Wearside already. He really needs to start showing more than just a hint of the form he has displayed for both England under 21s and more recently whilst on loan at Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship if he is to earn himself a new deal.
Had Wickham been a product of our youth team, there'd be no doubt he'd get a new deal despite his limited contribution in the first team. He isn't though. There's the fee to consider, all £8,000,000 of it. Even though it isn't his fault he cost so much, it will no doubt have a bearing on how the club and indeed many supporters perceive his contribution thus far.
It was a huge investment by Steve Bruce; a gamble. That said, given Wickham's status as one of the country's bright young things at the time, his was a signing that was greeted with a ripple of optimism. Looking back on our rather dire striker situation at the time, the folly of spending such a large chunk of the transfer kitty on a relatively unproven youngster is now obvious.
There's not only the fee to consider, there's the wages too, and this is where Wickham differs from an Academy of Light graduate. Players like Jordan Henderson and Jack Colback started out at the club on wages befitting their status at the time, earning improved contracts as their stature at the club grew. Offering a home grown youth product who has made it through the ranks without costing the club a penny in transfer fees is perfectly logical and in the case of Henderson, meant a more than healthy transfer fee was eventually received.
Wickham was signed as a prospect, but one who was anticipated to make an immediate impact. The likelihood is that he will be earning a wage that reflects that standing, rather than the more modest wage the average 18-20 year old academy player at the club takes home. This is money that could be spent on someone more capable of contributing to the first team right now, not five years down the line.
At the same time, he is only 20. That's no age at all for a professional footballer. He still has ample time to improve and for the club to spend £8,000,000 on potential, only to sell him before he has had a chance to reach anything like his peak would possibly be even more foolhardy than the initial outlay itself.
What evidence then is there of that potential? Aside from playing for the national side at under 21 level and loans to the Championship, he hasn't had many opportunities to show it. There have been occasional glimpses though. His first and only Premier League goal came against Aston Villa in 2011. It was a well taken effort too. A shame then, that he was injured just four minutes into the next game, an away defeat at Old Trafford. The signs of a partnership developing with Nicklas Bendtner were in evidence against Villa, but that injury prevented it from ever blossoming.
He has played and scored in cup games too, albeit against lower league opposition. He was a game changer in an FA Cup tie at Bolton Wanderers, coming on and netting the first in a two goal comeback. Sadly, he followed this up by starting in the replay and performing dreadfully. Similarly, this season he came on as a substitute and transformed the game around against MK Dons in the League Cup. This wonderful cup run could have been over before it started had he not taken to the field in inspired form.
These moments of game changing brilliance have been fleeting. Arguably, it's because he hasn't been given the chance to show anything other than glimpses, given only sporadic run outs here and there, before being shipped out on loan. On the other hand, you have to wonder why so many managers have taken a look at him and decided to farm him out after a handful of appearances. All the while, his age must be taken into account. Consistency cannot be expected of someone so young.
The fact he has shown any sort of quality means he does possess it. The real question then - the most important one when it comes to potential - is how much Wickham wants to make it. How much desire does he have to turn his potential into something more than that? Is he happy to be paid a Premier League wage, take the status that comes with it and just coast through his career, or does he actively want to improve and became a player deserving of the name?
The worry seems to be - on the face of it anyway - that he does not want it enough. Sheffield Wednesday manager Stuart Gray has spoken of Wickham's hope of returning there. Reports indicated that he was "gutted" to be leaving Hillsborough to return to the Stadium of Light. That might merely be because he was enjoying his time at Sheffield Wednesday, where he was not only playing, but also scoring goals. That does, after all, breed confidence.
Sadly, it also smacks of a lack of ambition too. At the time of his return, Nacho Scocco was yet to sign, Steven Fletcher was struggling for fitness - now ruled out with injury - and Jozy Altidore was simply struggling. Surely he should have been motivated to prove himself at the top level, not be disappointed to be asked to come back. If anything, he should have looked upon this as an opportunity to not only show his worth, but to repay the club who took a rather expensive risk on him.
Maybe I'm being unfair, but something tells me that unless he can take one of the opportunities he is likely to get in the next few weeks then he will be gone in the summer. Poyet and his squad have a lot of fixtures to contend with and as things stand, Wickham is the only fit alternative to Jozy Altidore. That means he may find himself given a start or two, never mind just appearances off the bench. Hopefully he can overcome the disappointment of being away from his comfort zone in the Championship and go on to show some much needed hunger and desire to prove himself at this level. He has the tools to do it, now is the time to put them to use. If he fails to, it could be curtains for his Sunderland career.