Steve Bruce could give Connor Wickham his first start

Connor Wickham

Connor Wickham

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CONNOR Wickham is in line for his first Sunderland start this weekend as manager Steve Bruce makes good on his promise to blood his young strikers in the wake of Asamoah Gyan’s desertion.

The Sunderland manager is determined to take the game to Stoke City this Sunderland, rather than look to withstand the inevitable bombardment from the “land of the giants” side – and that seems certain to include a 4-4-2 formation and a start for £8million summer signing Wickham.

At 6ft 3in, Wickham has the height and the physique to stand up to Stoke’s big men and, playing alongside 6ft 5in Nicklas Bendtner means Sunderland would have an aerial threat of their own.

Bruce will not make up his mind until after training sessions today and tomorrow and will only name his team on the day of the game.

But he admits that he is edging towards the idea of going very positive in attack while also looking to play good football to keep Stoke pegged back.

“Everyone talks about the obvious challenges Stoke present you with and there’s no denying that unless we stand up to the physical challenge they offer, we’re going to be in trouble.

“But we have to look at ourselves and what we can do.

“Last season at the Britannia, Stoke struggled to get anywhere near us for about an hour because of our passing and movement and I thought we played them off the park that day, which made it doubly disappointing to concede two late goals from set-pieces.

“For me, Sunday is quite simple really in terms of what we have to do – stand up to the physical challenge, impose ourselves on the game and let our football do the talking.

“We have played some decent stuff this season without really getting the rewards but we’ve got a very good squad of players and I know it’s only a matter of time before they start really demonstrating that.”

In terms of Wickham, Bruce said the youngster has made a good case for starting the game but has pleaded with supporters to stick behind the teenager if he does start.

He told the Echo: “We’ve had to look afresh at things in the wake of Asamoah leaving for the season.

“My plan was to bed the young forwards Connor and Dong-won in slowly, build up their experience and confidence and then look to get the best out of them further down the line – we have to remember that they are only 18 and 20.

“When you look at big talents in the Premier League who came into it young with big reputations, it has taken Theo Walcott to this stage to finally establish himself as a first-team regular while Gareth Bale also took a long time to settle in before we started seeing the best of him.

“It’s the same with Connor and Ji – they’re still learning – and I hadn’t wanted them too exposed too soon because inevitably if they don’t play well there’s a danger they’ll get stick from the fans and that’s going to affect them and set them back.

“Having said that, Connor has improved in every single appearance he’s made this season; Ji has got his first goal for the club.

“Unfortunately in some ways, we are where we are in terms of perhaps having to draft them in earlier than we would have hoped, but we need everyone to get behind them and hopefully they’ll rise to the occasion.”