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Sunderland’s Wickham is key to positive approach

Sunderland's Connor Wickham and Bolton Wanderers' Sam Ricketts.

Sunderland's Connor Wickham and Bolton Wanderers' Sam Ricketts.

ATTACK is the best form of defence, or so the old adage goes.

That should certainly give Sunderland boss Martin O’Neill food for thought.

After all, the Black Cats boss kept alive his side’s FA Cup hopes by going on the offensive against Bolton Wanderers at the Reebok Stadium on Saturday.

It’s hard to say whether that was the game plan all the while, or whether the Irishman was backed into a corner by how things were working out against the Trotters.

While the Wearsiders were never really forced on to the back foot by the hosts, Sunderland’s rearguard did its very best in the opening hour of the clash to gift victory to Wanderers.

With his side trailing 2-0 and centre-half Carlos Cuellar limping from the field injured in the 56th minute, O’Neill had a big decision to make.

Did he go like-for-like and introduce defender Matt Kilgallon or did he take the more adventurous option?

He went for the latter, and young striker Connor Wickham was thrown into the fray.

It was to prove a superb decision, Wickham proving the catalyst for a spirited Sunderland fightback, which could have seen the visitors nick victory in the end.

As it was, the cup-tie ended honours even, and the Black Cats and the Trotters will get to do it all again in the replay at the Stadium of Light a week tomorrow.

O’Neill said after the game that he was ready to introduce Wickham even before Cuellar’s injury forced his hand.

But the more sceptical have already questioned the Sunderland boss’s apparent reluctance to field two strikers in tandem in previous matches.

If there was any doubt as to whether Wickham could provide an effective foil alongside main forward Steven Fletcher, surely they must have been dispelled at the Reebok?

It’s a well known fact that O’Neill prefers to play with one up front, with two wingers pushed on.

But at times this season that has failed to provide the Wearsiders with enough attacking impetus to breach their opponents defences.

The arrival of Wickham on the field on Saturday, certainly gave the Black Cats the extra attacking threat that they were crying out for.

And O’Neill himself admitted that the young striker had an impact on proceedings.

He said: “Connor did great, and I was delighted for him. To get the goal will be a big confidence booster for him.”

As for the £8m youngster’s partnership up front with £12m-man Fletcher, the Sunderland boss conceded that their early signs of promise.

He added: “I think that’s been the first time he has been on the field with Steven Fletcher and, while it is hard to make a judgement on 35 minutes, it looks like they can play together.”

Wickham’s impact was both impressive and immediate. Bolton were forced to defend a wave of attacks, and looked to have dealt with at least some of the danger when keeper Andy Lonergan pulled off a great save to deny Fletcher.

Lonergan proved a thorn in the side of the Scot all afternoon producing several breathtaking stops to prevent Fletcher from opening his FA Cup account for the Wearsiders.

But the Trotters keeper was unable to similarly shut-out Wickham. The youngster’s initial attempt at goal following a corner was blocked, but he made no mistake at the second time of asking, slotting the ball through the legs of Lonergan and into the net.

With Wickham a willing runner and an added threat the home side sat back looking to try to hold on to their lead, but Sunderland pressed and were rewarded with an equaliser.

Wickham may have had nothing to do with Craig Gardner’s stunning strike, but the added pressure he helped to put on the Trotters backline certainly played a part in the visitors finishing the game in the ascendancy.

Now O’Neill must decide whether or not he wants to stick with his preferred formation, or whether a Wickham/Fletcher pairing might not be the best option.

On 35 minutes showing at Bolton, that would seem a no-brainer.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the young striker would have a similar impact in every game, but it is certainly something to consider.

Widemen Adam Johnson and James McClean again flattered to deceive at the weekend, whereas Wickham delivered.

To use another old saying if it’s not broke don’t fix it.

But until the arrival of Wickham on Saturday, the Wearsiders’ hopes of an FA Cup run looked torn apart at the seams not just broken.

So maybe the time is right to tinker and a dual strike force can give the Black Cats the forward impetus they need at the start of the new year.

 

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