Three years ago, Connor Wickham was meant to be the Premier League’s boy wonder.
The £8.5m Sunderland paid to bring him from Ipswich Town made him their most expensive teenager. He still is.
Until very recently, it looked a colossal waste of money. But two goals against Manchester City and one against Chelsea did more than just quadruple his Premier League goal output, they have given the Black Cats four points which mean victory at home to Cardiff City tomorrow will give them a realistic prospect of escaping relegation and saving the thick end of £50m.
So having just turned 21, has Wickham finally come of age?
“It’s been a tough three years but I don’t think I’m behind schedule,” Wickham reflects. “It’s not been tough in terms of settling in. There was a lot of hype and talk about me when I was at Ipswich but that was nothing I could control. I was just playing football and there was a lot of publicity at the time.
“When I signed for Sunderland I was happy but the manager who signed me (Steve Bruce) was sacked and I got injured just when it looked as if I may be getting into the team. In a way, it has been a disruptive time but the last year or so, something has just happened inside me. I feel different. I am feeling good.”
The best thing about Wickham’s form is no one saw it coming.
He was called back from a successful loan at Sheffield Wednesday in January. Coach Gustavo Poyet took a look at him – in training and two substitute appearances – and when he sent Wickham back out, this time to Leeds United, it seemed that was that as far as his Sunderland career was concerned, certainly at Premier League level.
But when Steven Fletcher picked up what looks like being a season-ending injury, with Jozy Altidore’s confidence non-existent and Ignacio Scocco failing to adapt to English football, Wickham returned.
Three starts produced no goals, until his Road to Damascus moment at Eastlands. “Something just clicked,” says Wickham. “I can’t really say what it is to be honest. I guess, maybe I have matured a lot since I came here.
“I moved 300 miles away from home. I have had to settle into a new environment in terms of the Premier League and the pressures which come with it. There is more pressure to perform because the profile is so much bigger and there is more competition for places. In the past 12 months, I feel I have matured into someone different. I feel I now understand football more than I did three years ago.”
Wickham sees this season’s loans as the making of him. During two months at Sheffield Wednesday he scored eight goals in 11 appearances, a strike rate not seen since his Ipswich days. “I have played such a limited amount of football in those three years (at Sunderland),” he says. “I have been pretty much on loan from the first time I went to Sheffield (Wednesday, in February 2013). That has been a help, playing regularly every week. In some ways, the Championship is even harder than the Premier League.
“Physically it is harder so coming back to the Premier League where it is still physical but the players are always trying to get a step ahead of everyone else so it’s almost a case of not knowing what everyone is going to do. It’s a clever league and you’re always second-guessing your opponents. Maybe I have become a bit cleverer. I have certainly adapted more, especially since my loan spell at Sheffield this season. That helped, and my performances and goals there caught the manager’s eye.
“Now I am back on the track maybe everyone expected me to be on three or four years ago.”
Albeit only as a last resort, Poyet is the first Sunderland boss to show real faith in the player. That he offered the striker no promises was, according to Wickham, a good move.
“All the managers I’ve had have been very hands-on in terms of training and controlling the team but I think this manager especially is more interactive with the players,” he says.
“He likes to have a bit more of a laugh and a joke with the players and it is almost as if he is one of the lads.
“He is not long finished himself so he knows about the game and all the ins and outs. He knows just when to do a heavy session or a light session so I think the boys understand that he knows what he is doing and we have to believe in his tactics and follow the gameplan.
“But I needed to get away on loan. I wasn’t getting enough game-time so it was up to me to go and find that. At the time, it was difficult because I was not getting into the team. It has been a long six months but I’m back now and finally getting my chance.
“When the manager said he was bringing me back it wasn’t a case of being guaranteed seven games because I would have been in danger of getting complacent. I would have thought I could have an off-game.
“If I was playing poorly the manager would drop me and that was always the case.
“I have learnt never to get complacent because I have got in the team previously and maybe got a bit that way and it didn’t happen for me.
“Maybe I am a bit more mature because I have realised you have to work day-in, day-out every single day of the week to be able to get in the team. Even now when the gaffer said you will get a run of games, I never took it for granted because you never know what is around the corner.”