MARTIN O’NEILL believes Connor Wickham has begun to appreciate the extra demands of the Premier League.
Wickham, in contention to start today’s encounter with West Ham, has demonstrated significant progress over the last month after returning to the first-team picture.
The £8million striker grabbed only the second goal of his Sunderland career in last weekend’s FA Cup third round clash at Bolton and was the catalyst for the second half comeback from the Black Cats.
Wickham has undoubtedly proved a more consistent threat than during his maiden campaign at the Stadium of Light after being limited to just six starts last season.
The 19-year-old has been doing extra training with Sunderland’s coach Steve Guppy to bring himself up to scratch.
And O’Neill says Wickham is now showing much greater awareness of what he needs to do in the top flight to rediscover the success he enjoyed in the Championship at Ipswich, when the likes of Spurs and Liverpool both chased the teenage frontman.
“It’s an important time for Connor now,” said O’Neill.
“I think he’s started to accept what a professional footballer at this level requires. What it needs to attain that and then to stay there.
“He’s very willing and wants to come out and do some extra work which is very important.
“That goal at Bolton will have given him a lift in terms of confidence.
“And in the little cameo role that he has performed when he has come on from the bench, he’s done fine.
“Even in the game he started against Chelsea, he didn’t do too badly.”
Despite Wickham’s progress, O’Neill still hopes to boost his front-line during the January transfer window.
“Of course at this minute, Steven Fletcher needs a bit of help in the goalscoring department,” said O’Neill.
Swansea striker Danny Graham is O’Neill’s principle target, yet the move revolves around whether the Welsh outfit can land ex-Sunderland frontman Kenwyne Jones.
Certainly, Swansea seem prepared to let Graham leave the Liberty Stadium, with the Black Cats ready to make a £5million move for the Chester-le-Street-born striker.
But Stoke boss Tony Pulis is keeping tight-lipped over whether Jones is available, even though he admits there has been interest in the Trinidadian.
Pulis said: “There’s a lot of interest and there’s also been interest from other clubs for other players.”