TITUS BRAMBLE says Steven Fletcher’s season-ending injury may be just the opportunity that Connor Wickham has needed.
Wickham impressed on only his second Premier League start of the season in Sunday’s defeat at Chelsea after replacing the crocked Danny Graham in the side for Paolo Di Canio’s first game in charge.
Despite netting five goals in his last seven outings for England Under-21s, the striker was limited to a fringe role under axed boss Martin O’Neill, spending a month on loan in the Championship at Sheffield Wednesday as Sunderland plummeted towards the drop zone.
But with top scorer Fletcher ruled out for the season and a knee problem limiting Graham to an unused substitute’s role at Stamford Bridge, Wickham could keep his place for Sunday’s Tyne-Wear derby.
Bramble, who like Wickham moved from Ipswich to the North East for big money as a youngster, has consistently championed the £8million man’s potential since joining Sunderland almost two years ago and is confident he can take his chance in the side.
The centre-half told the Echo: “Connor’s done very well for the Under-21s and I’m sure that’s helped his confidence.
“As a footballer, when someone gets injured it’s unfortunate for them, but fortunate for you.
“Fletcher’s injury is bad for the team but on a personal level, it’s good for Connor. Connor’s got everything. People still forget how young he is, he is a kid.
“It’s going to take him a couple of years to learn the game.
“You’re aware of him because of his size and he’s got great ability as well.”
Like Graham, Bramble is fighting to be fit for the crucial clash at St James’s Park after missing the Chelsea game with a calf problem.
Graham is the one with everything to prove though after drawing a blank in his seven outings for Sunderland since arriving in a £5million move from Swansea City.
Bramble said: “We know what a good player Danny is. He just needs a goal from confidence.
“Within himself, he might just be getting a bit down because he’s not got that first goal yet.
“But we’ve been delighted with him.”
While Gateshead-born Graham is yet to make his derby bow, Bramble has experienced the encounter from both sides of the divide - once for Newcastle and twice for Sunderland.
And with only goal difference separating Sunderland from the relegation zone, Bramble is well aware of the extra significance of this Sunday’s encounter.
The 31-year-old added: “Every game we play now everyone has to be up for because we’re a team who are not safe.
“Anything can happen in the derby.
“The thing about North East football is the passion of the fans is second to none.
“I don’t think there’s anywhere like here anywhere in the country.”