THE MEMORIES of penalty shoot-out ecstasy have flooded back this week for the 9,000 who were at Old Trafford for January’s Capital One Cup semi-final.
But the Theatre of Dreams is not such a happy hunting ground for in-form Sunderland striker Connor Wickham.
While Wickham will lead Sunderland’s line at Manchester United tomorrow on the back of five goals in three games, his previous best run of form in a red and white shirt was ended prematurely by injury at Old Trafford.
Ahead of the trip to United in November 2011, the then 18-year-old had netted his first Sunderland goal in the previous weekend’s draw against Aston Villa and was duly handed his third successive start alongside Nicklas Bendtner.
But within the opening five minutes, Wickham fell awkwardly, damaged knee ligaments and was stretchered off.
When the £8million frontman returned prematurely from injury to start the first two games of Martin O’Neill’s reign a month later, he lacked the same sharpness and promptly fell down the new manager’s pecking order.
It proved to be one of those fleeting impacts from Wickham, without materialising into long-term rewards – a pattern that would be repeated throughout his first two-and-a-half years at the Stadium of Light.
But since returning from his loan spell at Leeds United in March, Wickham has emphatically demonstrated he has overcome those false dawns after being at the forefront of Sunderland’s dramatic escape from the jaws of relegation.
Wickham told the Echo: “I got a run of games when I scored my first goal against Aston Villa and then got injured at Man United, was out for a month and then lost my place.
“It was unsettling. I’ve been here, there and everywhere on loan. But I’ve always remained positive that this is where I belong and can show what I can do.
“I’m just glad that the manager brought me back. I’m repaying the manager and all the staff here.
“I’m just doing what I know I can do.”
With Wickham’s brace helping Sunderland move out of the relegation zone with a 4-0 win over Cardiff last weekend, two wins from the final three games would secure the Black Cats’ place in the Premier League, due to their superior goal difference over the bottom three.
On paper, next week’s Stadium of Light clashes against West Brom and Swansea offer Sunderland the best hope of registering the points required to beat the drop.
But with Sunderland registering four points from their trips to Manchester City and Chelsea, Wickham insists Gus Poyet’s side are very capable of continuing their resurgence at Old Trafford.
“We’re going to go into every game positive, thinking we can win,” added the England Under-21 international.
“We took a point at City and three at Chelsea, so we’re on a high.
“We’ve got a spirit in the dressing room where we don’t want to go down.
“We know what we can do when we perform. We just need to keep grounded and we’ll be fine.”
* Don’t miss the top report and reaction from Manchester United-Sunderland tomorrow, plus the biggest and best coverage of SAFC and local football, in the online Football Echo. It’s available on this website from around 6.45pm tomorrow.