SUCH is Sunderland’s desperate need to find the back of the net, that anyone who hints at being a goalscoring solution is immediately the answer to Martin O’Neill’s prayers.
That was very much the case yesterday afternoon when news began to filter through to the populace about a brace for Connor Wickham in a 2-0 victory over Aston Villa for Sunderland’s Under-21s.
The reality is somewhat different.
Wickham did indeed do his chances of first-team involvement no harm in front of O’Neill’s back-room staff at the Academy of Light with two crisp finishes and some neat hold-up play, even if he faded in the second half.
That may well be enough to earn the England U21 striker a spot on the bench for the far more significant test against Villa tomorrow.
But O’Neill has shown in his 11 months on Wearside that he is a creature of habit and although Wickham has impressed the Sunderland boss with his progress recently, it would be a major shock if the £9million frontman was a genuine contender to partner Steven Fletcher.
Nevertheless, Wickham led the line effectively against a youthful Villa side and made the most of his opportunity.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of fellow rookie striker Ji Dong-won, deployed in the hole behind the former Ipswich man.
Ji didn’t lack movement or effort, yet his end product was wasteful, albeit it took a brilliant stop from Villa keeper Craig Hill to prevent the South Korean getting on the scoresheet.
The 21-year-old should have broken the deadlock within the opening 60 seconds too after being presented with a one-on-one by Craig Lynch’s through-ball.
But Ji lost his bearings under pressure from the out-rushing Hill and knocked a harmless shot well wide.
Villa striker Michael Brennan went close at the other end in the fifth minute with a free-kick from 25 yards that needed to be tipped around the post by Jordan Pickford.
But within two minutes, Sunderland were ahead when Adam Mitchell dinked the ball to Wickham and the striker made a yard on Courtney Cameron before firing a powerful shot with the outside of his right boot into the net from 15 yards.
It sparked a period of pressure – Ji going close when he had a shot cleared off the line by Daniel Devine.
Villa created their best opportunity in the 34th minute when Graham Burke unleashed a low effort which cannoned back off the near post.
The hugely impressive Blair Adams then presented Ji with a golden opportunity on the counter-attack five minutes before the break when the left-back pulled a low cross back from the left-hand touchline.
It came to Ji, six yards out, but his powerful drive was spectacularly tipped over the top by Hill.
Sunderland’s second arrived on the stroke of half-time when Villa centre-half Mason Watkins-Clark was caught in possession by Ji on halfway and the Korean fed Wickham through on goal.
The 19-year-old kept his cool with just Hill to beat and tucked it beyond the stopper for his second.
Villa enjoyed more of the ball in the second half, without ever creating a clear-cut opportunity.
Brennan tried his luck with another free-kick from 25 yards which was again tipped behind by Pickford.
But Sunderland could easily have extended their lead.
Wickham saw a shot pushed away from an acute angle by Hill before Lynch glanced a header wide from Gorrin’s corner.
Kevin Ball withdrew Wickham and Ji with 10 minutes to go, but not necessarily with a view to the pair being involved tomorrow.
SUNDERLAND: Pickford, Marrs, Adams, Reed, Egan, Oliver, Mitchell (Ferguson 55), Gorrin, Wickham (Laidler 78), Ji (Deacon 78), Lynch. Subs not used: Joyce, Wilson. Booked: Reed (90)
ASTON VILLA: Hill, Donacien (Bateman 46), Cameron, Stieber, Devine, Watkins-Clark, Graham, Carruthers, Brennan, Burke (Barton 64), Grealish. Subs not used: Barrett, Melvin, Ward.