CONNOR Wickham is set to make his full Sunderland debut against Stoke City on Sunday.
Having this summer made him the most expensive teenager to join the club, manager Steve Bruce has been trying to ease Wickham into his first season of top-flight football.
The £8m 18-year-old only started 33 games in the Football League, making almost half his Ipswich Town appearances from the bench.
But with goals hard to come by and increasing pressure on his position, Bruce has decided now is the time to introduce his most expensive signing of the summer to the starting line-up.
England Under-21 international Wickham has declared himself ready for the challenge of starting, telling his club’s official website: “I want to kick on and start playing more and more.
“All I want to do is play football at the highest level I can.
“I want to show the manager I can play at this level and score the goals we need.
“It’s harder to influence a game off the bench but I know I have to give my best every time I get out there and prove I’m worth a place.”
Although Bruce is understood to have received assurances from chairman Niall Quinn about his position, there is growing discontent on the Stadium of Light terraces. There were sporadic calls for Bruce’s head amongst the full-time boos when Sunderland lost 2-1 to Chelsea on Saturday. That in itself was no disgrace, but it was where the limp performance fitted into the pattern of the season and the year that upset some supporters.
Sunderland are yet to win this term, even knocked out of the League Cup by Championship newcomers Brighton and Hove Albion, and their home record is worse still. They have won one of their previous nine matches – a sequence which included defeat by Newcastle United last month.
So far this season, the Black Cats have only found the net twice. Ji Dong-Won’s injury-time consolation goal at the weekend was the first scored by a Sunderland striker this season.
The Wearsiders played one up front against the Blues, but are likely to revert to 4-4-2 against Tony Pulis’ more aggressive side, who drew 1-1 in Kiev in last night’s Europa League.
Bruce’s hand has been further weakened by the decision to send Asamoah Gyan out on a season-long loan. The manager felt he had no choice but to allow the Ghanaian to join Al-Ain, with Sunderland reportedly earning a world-record £6m loan fee from the United Arab Emirates club. He viewed Gyan as potentially disruptive, having been angling for a move – or a pay rise – ever since his superb performance for his country against England at Wembley in March.
Sanctioning the departure after the European transfer window had closed undid the good work of signing Nicklas Bendtner (pictured left) from Arsenal, on another season-long loan.
Having got the best out of him in a previous loan spell – at Birmingham City – Bruce has no concerns about the 23-year-old. “You can see Nicklas gives us a new dimension,” he said in an interview with the club’s official website. “He’s a very good player who I’m sure will have a very good season for us.
“We saw flashes of that against Chelsea and, for me, he will only get better.”