"Maybe I have to slap his face a bit … I’m talking about motivating him in a genuine way because he has so much potential … but sometimes [in training] he seems to be looking around saying, ‘Where am I?’. I want to say: ‘You are on the football pitch, with the grass’ …"
Connor Wickham got the better end of Paolo Di Canio’s brutal squad bollocking in May 2013. But today, more supporters are sounding the Italian’s discontent of a young player who has started to fall far short of his potential. They have good reason to be disappointed too. Because, when it comes to potential, Connor Wickham has it. He has a lot of it. And he always has.
Roy Keane knew it. He attentively sought to find the unknown 16-year old strikers’ untapped traits; and motivate him into a regular goal scorer for Ipswich Town from August 2009.
Dedicated England fans knew it. They watched as the 17-year old prospect’s goals crushed France and Spain to win the 2010 UEFA U17 European Championships in Liechtenstein; when its Golden Player Award went not to Ross Barkley, not to £23m-rated Saido Berahino, nor even to 2-time Serie A champion Paul Pogba, but to England’s promising, young target man.
Paul Jewell knew it. He chose Ipswich’s reserve striker, in January 2011, to save the ‘Tractor Boys’ from relegation free-fall in the 10/11 Championship season; and watched the teenager net a hat-trick at Doncaster Rovers within a month, totalling 9 goals in 23 starts.
The Football League knew it. To the flourishing forward with 15 goals in 72 matches, the board presented both the 2011 Young Player of the Year and Championship Apprentice awards.
Ipswich Town knew it. With scouts infesting Portman Road, the club renegotiated a jumbo-valuation clause in the piping-hot 18-year olds contract in January 2011, so that only a club willing to offer an epic transfer fee could buy their investment.
And Steve Bruce knew it. He took that £7.92m punt from the Hendo-kitty and gambled it on the unproven teenager. Bruce, to his credit, realistically told Sunderland fans, "… [He] is for the future and the present … [but that] doesn’t mean we expect him to be the finished article …"
Bruce’s young forward scored his first Premier League goal in just his second start. But when #BruceOut triumphed in December 2011, his plans for Connor Wickham were sacked with him, and so started 22 tedious months for the striker that nearly ruined all the acclaim he had built.
Wickham’s development under Martin O’Neill, from December 2011 to March 2013, was disgraceful. In Sunderlands 2011/12 season: 4 starts and 81 minutes-worth of substitute apps. In 2012/13: demoted to the U21 squad, a nothing-loan to Sheffield Wednesday, and 2 starts in all competitions – despite Steven Fletchers late injury and Danny Grahams eternal goal drought.
Paolo Di Canio, as mentioned, ensured Wickham started the 2013/14 season on a foundation of criticism, accusing his ‘playboy’ image as a cultural distraction from his job. Wickham spared the Italian embarrassment later with a brace in the Capital One Cup against MK Dons.
It was Gustavo Poyet however who extracted Wickham from exile and shipped him back to Hillsborough in November 2013. The striker would score 8 goals in 11 games in the Championship, and was loaned back, to Leeds United in February 2014 to recapture his form.
So, did Gus Poyet know Wickham had enough potential to show why £7.92m was worth every penny? Because Wickham – match fit and in form – was hugely influential in stopping Sunderlands relegation in March and April 2014. He scored the braces against Manchester City and Cardiff City, the goal at Stamford Bridge, and the match-winning assist at Old Trafford.
Of Sunderlands 11 goals during that season-saving run, Wickham contributed to 7, scoring 5. Mathematically, without him, Sunderland would be a Championship club today. And now we as supporters know it: Connor Wickham has the potential to change a game – to change a season.
And this season, Sunderland needs a game changer. So where is all of Wickhams potential now?
In this 14/15 Premier League season, his goal-scoring run has unsurprisingly cooled. Wickham has started just 6 matches as a centre forward – the rest as a winger. He may have the best shots-per-game ratio and total shots tally at the club (60), but 4 goals in all competitions is awful for a player who is purpose-built for the role of a target man.
His defensive contribution has been notably good. Wickham’s stats in tracking back triples Adam Johnson on the opposing wing; averaging 3 defensive acts per game (29% interceptions), and playing no part in the 6 defensive blunders that have cost the club goals this season.
But these are not stats that should be applauded; not for the defensive wing-play that has obstructed his goal scoring form this season. Wickham must return permanently to the role of a centre forward, as he was last season. His attributes and strengths demand it.
He’s got the physical framework of a 6"3 Optimus Prime with the aggressive convictions of a bulked-up, penalty box pit-bull. He is a centre forward of such aerial presence that he should not be seen anywhere but on the end of a Sebastian Larsson cross. No player at the club has entered more aerial battles than him, with 141 this season and winning 48% of them.
And yet, he has so much to improve on. What more could Wickham do if he didn’t have the worst first-touch rate at the club, or was not dispossessed the most? How more effective could Wickham be if his shot accuracy hadn’t dropped from 71% in the 12/13 season, to the clubs’ tenth highest this season at 44%? How much more feared could Wickham become to a defender if he hadn’t dropped his one-on-one take-on success rate from 63% last season to 45% this season? Winger or not, Wickham isn’t a technically-astute prancing s**t – he was built to bully players! (Think Cardiff City at home last season, of how he forced the first-half penalty).
Crucially, what more could Wickham do if Poyet introduced a means of playing to his strengths? All of his goals this season have been in the penalty area, and 4 of his last 8 Premier League goals have been headers. That’s the mark of a towering centre forward; one who scored 17 goals in 36 matches for the England youth squads, and who was a man amongst boys to defenders.
But Wickham isn’t playing youth teams now. His Sunderland record is 13 goals in 81 matches. He’s proven he can score in the Premier League but he’s not a teenager anymore. Matured, experienced, and a regular starter; the need for his improvement has never been greater.
Sunderland is partly responsible. The club cannot expect to invest and not actively develop, as during Martin O’Neill’s tenure. Sunderland cannot afford that luxury. Wickham’s contract renewal in December 2014 must be an incentive to supporters that the 21-year olds’ future parallels the club’s. This cannot be some post-Colback panic-stricken money-squandering.
That said; yes, Martin O’Neill ignored him. Paolo Di Canio berated him. Even Gus Poyet, this season, has misused him. And yes, Wickham has had the occasional raw deal at Sunderland, but these reasons only explain why he has not unleashed his potential – they cannot excuse it.
Immediate impact is often unfairly weighed on young players’ shoulders, but Wickham has been on the scene long enough. He can’t be excused by Steve Bruce’s words in June 2011 anymore; not while he is being outshone by a 2-month younger, 50lbs lighter, 3-inch smaller Harry Kane.
It’s either a bitter statement, or a harsh truth: Connor Wickham should be in Harry Kane’s position today. He was always meant to be England’s archetypal centre forward. It’s why he was scouted at 15-years old to play in the England youth teams; to be trained by coaches, from Kenny Swain to Stuart Pearce, to become England’s next top goal scorer.
Now is the time for Connor Wickham to become just that – for Sunderland. The Black Cats need a player to ignite the fire at the Stadium of Light. Wickham’s done it before, and with a lethal strike partner in Jermain Defoe, there’s no reason why he can’t do it again.
So, to Connor Wickham: the time for potential is over. The time to prove all the detractors wrong is now. The time to stop celebrating your past is now. The time to become the striker – who won accolade after accolade with England’s youth squads – is now. The time to become the goal scorer who stopped relegation last season is now!
Play until your heart bleeds all that potential over the badge on your chest. Do it for Gus Poyet, for bringing you back when your career was ending before it started. Do it for Sunderland, who invested millions upon millions of pounds in you. Do it for yourself, because you’ve got every attribute needed to be the strong, aggressive, all-conquering goal machine Sunderland craves. And do it for the supporters, who will make a hero of you for it.