THIS is it for Connor Wickham. Time to deliver. Which is a ridiculous thing to say when you’re talking about a 20-year-old kid.
But such are perceptions in football. Just ask John Bostock or Freddy Adu. Burn bright, burn young, and you’d better keep shining. Otherwise people just call you a flop and move onto the next big thing.
Wickham was just 11 days past his 16th birthday when he made his debut for Ipswich, a teenage tank who could already bounce seasoned centre-halves aside.
Four games later he scored his first goals. Then came a hat-trick, a wonderful solo effort and a regular place in the England U21s.
In 2011 he was named the Football League’s young player of the year. A contract extension followed. “I feel that I’m at the right club to progress as a player,” he said at the signing. “I’m playing games every week, I’m enjoying my football and the club is moving in the right direction. That’s all I want.”
Then Sunderland slapped in a bid of £8m – a Football League record – and Ipswich snapped their hand off.
You can’t blame them. And you can’t blame Wickham. Ask 100 18-year-olds if they fancy a Premier League contract and 100 will say yes.
What Wickham didn’t know was that Sunderland were about to spiral into chaos and disorder. Four months after he signed, manager Steve Bruce was sacked. Martin O’Neill, fighting relegation and desperate for results, had little time for a raw teenager and dumped Wickham back in the reserves. He also bought striker Steven Fletcher for a club-record £12m.
The following season brought further struggle and another manager in Paolo Di Canio, who signed a raft of attacking players.
Now he is gone, too, replaced by Gus Poyet, whose remit is once more to avoid the Championship. Wickham has skimmed the grass. But 33 league games in two-and-a-half years is no good for a young player learning his trade.
Thirty solid months of development has been lost, and it ain’t coming back.
Look at it like this: In the time Wickham has spent warming the bench at the stadium of light, Jordan Rhodes has scored 80 Football League goals. Wickham has three, plus one in the Premier League. Yet both rose to prominence in the same season, 2009-10.
Offered a choice back then, I reckon 90 per cent of managers would have wanted Wickham rather than Rhodes in their side.
Now those numbers would almost certainly be reversed. It is a stark illustration of why any young player should think long and hard before succumbing to pressure from chairmen and agents when a Premier League club comes calling.
Other than cash, Wickham has gained nothing from being at Sunderland. As Ipswich legend John Wark predicted in 2011, he has simply vanished.
“When somebody comes in with six, seven, eight million quid, it’s hard for a club at this level to turn down,” he said.
“Realistically, we couldn’t.
“But for Connor’s sake, I would’ve liked him to stay with us for a wee while. Young lads get lost at big clubs; they end up hanging around in the reserves for years. I would much rather spend those years playing regularly at a lower level.”
Criminally, Sunderland didn’t even get Wickham out on loan. Andros Townsend has shown that a spell – or eight – outside the top flight is far better than kicking around with the stiffs.
Yet Wickham had to wait almost two years before going to Sheffield Wednesday for six games. Managers too concerned by covering their backs let him rot on the bench as an “option” instead of trying to help his career.
Now, though, he is at Sheffield Wednesday again and if last weekend’s goalscoring debut in the 5-2 win over Reading is anything to go by, ready to prove a point. It is the perfect destination. Scant competition for his place. An experienced partner in Matty Fryatt who will relieve the burden of expectation. Wingers who put balls into the box. And a manager who knows his game.
This is what Wickham should have been doing for two years. Now I just hope he can remind everyone how good he is. Because he may have enormous talent. He may have years on his side. But nobody will remember if he isn’t on the pitch. And it would be a tremendous shame if, like Bostock, he simply disappeared thanks to one bad move.
BOSSES SHOULD LOOK DOWN ON PLAYERS
LEICESTER have enjoyed the best start to a league season in their history. Blackpool have taken seven points from nine. Derby, managed by Steve McClaren, have lost one in five.
The connection? All three sides currently have managers who don’t watch games from the dugout. Personally, I’ve always wondered why anyone – least of all a manager – would want to stand pitchside.
If you’ve ever had a season ticket in Row A or sat in the press box at Stamford Bridge, you’ll know the view is atrocious.
Before St James’ Park was redeveloped, the hump in the centre of the pitch was so severe that, viewed from the front tier, a player sprinting down the opposite wing appeared to have no legs.
Even in later years, I remember watching Nobby Solano score what I thought was a tap in only to discover he’d lamped a blinder from 18 yards.
Down low is little more than a maelstrom of speeding bodies. Up high you can see shapes and systems, runs and space, who is out of position and who isn’t.
More importantly, though, your players can get on with their job without their boss bawling ceaselessly in their ear holes.
Of course, it may mean nothing. But a relaxed player is a good player. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve always enjoyed my work a lot more without the head honcho looking over my shoulder.