MARTIN O’NEILL says Connor Wickham’s display at Norwich City highlighted his growing appreciation of the physical demands required of a centre-forward.
O’Neill handed Wickham only his second appearance of the season at Carrow Road after the 19-year-old replaced the injured Steven Fletcher at the interval.
Wickham’s previous appearance from the bench was a meagre two minutes at Everton, yet the £8million frontman held the ball up effectively during Sunderland’s second half assault.
The England Under-21 international has been undergoing specialist early-morning training sessions with Sunderland coach Steve Guppy to bring him up to scratch after being confined to the fringes this season.
And O’Neill was encouraged by the sight of the 6ft 3in striker making the most of his imposing frame.
O’Neill said: “I thought he did very well for us.
“He’s attempted to get hold of the ball and that’s very encouraging indeed.
“He has to try to play like a centre-forward and the most important thing is to be strong in the opposition penalty area and I thought he attempted that.”
Wickham is now in contention to make his first Premier League start since last December, when Chelsea visit the Stadium of Light this weekend.
Fletcher continues to undergo treatment on the ankle injury which forced him off against the Canaries, although the problem is not thought to be one that will sideline the Scottish international for a sustained spell.
But with Louis Saha, who travelled with the rest of the Sunderland squad to Norfolk, absent from the bench on Sunday due to a knock, Wickham looks the most likely starter if Fletcher’s ever-present run in the starting XI since his £12m move from Wolves comes to an end.
Fraizer Campbell and Ji Dong-won are the other strikers at O’Neill’s disposal, with both frontmen on the scoresheet for Sunderland Under-21s during yesterday’s 4-1 victory over Stoke City.