LEE Cattermole says he has sympathy for Connor Wickham and the burden of expectation the England Under 21 international has had to cope with from his first days in football.
And the Black Cats midfielder says it was always likely to take the big striker time to mature and find his feet in the top flight.
Now though, Cattermole is hoping that the young forward will go on to set the Premier League alight next season after his five-goal finish to the last campaign kept Sunderland in the top flight and earned Wickham the April ‘Barclays Premier League Player of the Month’ award.
“It definitely takes you time to settle and to adjust if you get into the first team at a very early age,” said the former Sunderland skipper.
“You’re a kid.
“You don’t have a clue what’s at stake or what you have to do to get your performances right.
“As you get older you change your ways and realise how much this game means to people and yourself as well.
“I’ve changed drastically from the lad I was at 21, let alone 17 to 18.”
Wickham made his first team debut at the age of 16 years and 11 days in April 2009 - becoming Ipswich Town’s youngest ever player - and was instantly touted as the next big thing.
He was compared with fellow prodigy Wayne Rooney and Liverpool challenged for his signature before then Sunderland manager Steve Bruce invested £8m in bringing the raw youngster to Wearside.
But Cattermole, who made his debut as a 17-year-old and became Middlesbrough’s youngest ever captain, understands how tough it can be growing up in the spotlight and believes it has taken his team-mate several seasons to finally reach an age of maturity.
“Connor will only get better,” he insisted.
“He came to Sunderland as a young lad and he’s never really been given a chance.
“When he has been, if you don’t take your chance in the first couple of games, you don’t get much longer - results are that important.
“But he’s shown people what he’s all about now after getting experience from his loan spells and hopefully he will get better and better.
“He’s got to just keep going and not get carried away.
“That’s where the Press goes with you and before you know it they’re suddenly saying you’re the best striker going.
“But he’ll be the first to admit that he needs to keep improving and working hard in training, like we all do.”
Cattermole says the first signs of the new Wickham came when he rose to the challenge of being recalled to the first team at the back end of last season at a time when the odds were stacked against Sunderland’s surviving.
“I remember saying to him we needed someone to score a few goals - be the man to take the responsibility.
“He grabbed hold of it and said: ‘I’m the man to score the goals’.
“It’s great that he set himself such a high standard - now and he needs to maintain that and demand that from himself all the time.”