Connor Wickham is collecting heavyweight endorsements almost as quickly as Premier League goals.
Fresh from Niall Quinn urging him to take the next step and become Sunderland’s answer to Alan Shearer, he now has the backing of Kevin Phillips to carry on the sterling work that has transformed him from expensive flop to unlikely saviour in the space of a few days.
That is some double act, as Sunderland supporters of a certain vintage will tell you. Wickham has the support of the Black Cats’ best ever Premier League strike-force but as he looks to pave the way for another season of top flight football, Wickham should consider the sage advice of the pair.
Quinn’s words came with a sting in the tale, of course. The former Sunderland striker, manager and chairman wants him to start being the last to traipse off the training ground if he is to make a lasting contribution above and beyond the flurry of strikes which have lifted the Black Cats to within a point of safety.
Former European Golden Shoe winner Phillips, too, has praise that is laced with a little bit of caution for the latest pretender to his number ten shirt.
They are different players but there are things that Wickham could learn from Phillips, whose game was based on timing, intuition and unusually quick footballing wit.
“He’s wearing that number ten shirt so I suppose there’s always going to be those comparisons,” Phillips tells The Journal.
“He’s chipped in with the goals of late. I’ve watched him in and around the Championship over the last few years because he’s obviously been out on loan at various clubs and he’s done well. For a young lad going to Sunderland for such a big fee, it can take time to settle down and get used to the limelight that you’re going to get being a Sunderland player. We all know what it is like in the North East.
“But it looks like now his feet are grounded, he’s scoring goals and if he scores a few more between now and the end of the season he instantly becomes a legend at Sunderland for keeping the club in the league.
“Now I hope he deals with that well and I hope he continues to improve, keep his feet on the ground and he kicks on.”
Phillips was talking after a Sunderland old boy’s team took on Wolves in honour of Jody Craddock’s testimonial year.
It says it all about the bond between the players who were part of Craddock’s squad that they were prepared to forsake their Bank Holiday Monday – in Phillips’ case, an open-topped bus parade to commemorate Leicester’s promotion – to be part of his big day.
It also tells you something about the achievements of the current Sunderland squad that they are arguably the first crop to come close to Peter Reid’s side when it comes to creating positive memories for the supporters.
Provided they land the point they need from the next two games – and we should know by now not to take anything for granted this season – they will have achieved the remarkable feat of doing the double over Newcastle, earning the first victory over Manchester United for 46 years, taking four points from Manchester City and waltzing to Wembley in the Capital One Cup.
Then there is the small matter of beating Chelsea and ending Jose Mourinho’s unbeaten home record in the Premier League while they were at it. Poyet said yesterday that he had always believed, and used the fact that people had told him it was impossible as motivation.
He said: “I think that’s me. When it’s something that no one else has done I think ‘I’ll try it’. Why not?
“To try you need to play well, defend, fight.
“The idea was to tell them just because they had not lost at home doesn’t mean we can’t try. I hate the phrase ‘Nothing to lose’. I hate that, it means it doesn’t matter but of course it does matter, there is three points at stake. I look at it and think ‘It’s a nice opportunity’. We know everyone will be talking about Chelsea’s loss tomorrow morning but it was still our moment.
“When you do team talks you want to use everything you can motivate them. Sometimes you say something that the players will think: ‘That’s b******s”. Sometimes though, they get it and think ‘Why not?’”
For Phillips, the meeting of two of his old teams has coincided with promotion with Leicester, where he will step into a coaching role next season. He cannot see Sunderland slipping up at home to West Brom tonight.
“Sunderland have got that bit between their teeth now for those two home games,” he says.
“I know they’ve let themselves down after one or two big results this season. They dropped points in one or two home games where they shouldn’t have but I just don’t think that will happen now, it means too much.
“I see them getting over the finishing line and surviving, as I do the Baggies. I’d love to see two of my old teams staying in the Premier League and it’ll be great for me to go back as a coach next season.”