Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Connor’s up to the job

Sunderland's Connor Wickham.
Sunderland's Connor Wickham.
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JUST under a year ago, Martin O’Neill placed his faith in Sunderland’s expensively acquired teenager for the start of a new era.

It was a seismic surprise.

Connor Wickham had barely kicked a ball in a month, had just 48 hours of training under his belt after recovering from knee ligament damage and had only fleetingly impressed since his summer move from Ipswich Town.

But O’Neill’s gamble reaped its rewards.

Wickham gritted his teeth through 76 minutes against Blackburn Rovers and led the line effectively before that oh-so-memorable late comeback had O’Neill jigging on the touchline.

The backing of the frontman did not last.

After several impotent displays in the games that followed, Wickham gradually faded out of contention until this season, he has found himself on the fringe of the fringes.

But a month or so ago, there was a sign that O’Neill’s faith in the £8million frontman was gradually beginning to return.

O’Neill tellingly mentioned how Wickham was making strides on the training field and how his one-on-one sessions with Steve Guppy were beginning to reap rewards.

The evidence of that improvement was tangible yesterday.

The caveat is that Sunderland remain confined to a position where positives aren’t necessarily sufficient. The Black Cats need points on the board, not hard luck tales or signs of improvement.

But in Wickham’s display, there was a genuine sign of encouragement, in a season which has produced few of those, after arguably the 19-year-old’s most proficient display in red and white.

When he signed Wickham, Steve Bruce predicted that it would be two years before Sunderland’s investment began to reap any rewards and perhaps that timescale was relatively accurate.

Just maybe, Wickham has needed that period of acclimatisation to familiar himself with the darker arts of centre-forward play – holding off the attentions of a centre-half, however it is achieved, and making sure the ball sticks in the final third.

He certainly provided some gumption to the Sunderland attack yesterday despite the torrent of abuse he received for his Ipswich allegiances from the terraces.

Wickham’s control has certainly improved. His first touch was clean and he brought others into play with his back to goal.

Crucially, he wasn’t outmuscled either.

Just eight minutes after his introduction, Wickham bullied Sebastien Bassong to win Sunderland a corner and he did similarly in the dying stages to pressurise Alexander Tettey and put in a cross from the left which the Canaries just diverted behind.

Wickham arguably works the channels with more relish than Steven Fletcher and he can sniff out a goal, too – denied by a brilliant last-gasp challenge from Ryan Bennett early in the second half and then twice seeing Bassong intercept crosses from the left as he waited to tap home.

The England Under-21 striker is not suddenly the saviour to Sunderland’s season and he may remain on the bench, should Fletcher recover to face Chelsea this weekend.

But at least Wickham showed he has the ability to lead Sunderland’s line in the top flight.

If that was a throwback to O’Neill’s early days at the Stadium of Light, then so was the difference between the first and second halves, as they neatly summed up the first and second seasons under his stewardship.

In the first half, Sunderland were as bad as they have been all season.

With self-belief utterly anonymous, Sunderland laboured at walking pace, going backwards, sideways or lumping it harmlessly over the top, rather than risk a ball forwards.

But the more significant problem was that Sunderland were too willing to back off the Canaries and let them spray the ball around effortlessly.

That has been symptomatic of the Black Cats since August.

Sunderland have been too eager to sit off and react to proceedings, rather than forcing the issue themselves.

Think back to the opening months of O’Neill’s reign and that was far from the case.

Sunderland were notable for the way they pressed opposition sides high up the pitch, forcing them into mistakes and allowing the Black Cats to begin attacks from far more advanced positions rather than having to make lung-busting runs just to get into the penalty area.

Lo and behold, Sunderland did just that after the break.

Maybe it was O’Neill’s half-time team talk, maybe it was a “nothing-to-lose” mentality that developed after such a dreadful first 45 minutes. But Sunderland were transformed to their old selves.

They chased, harried and harassed Norwich deep in enemy territory and the Canaries struggled to get out of their own half for the opening 20 minutes after the interval.

Suddenly, Norwich didn’t look like a side buoyed by a seven-game unbeaten run. They didn’t like it up ’em.

Had it not been for those last-gasp interceptions from centre-halves Bennett and particularly Bassong, then Sunderland would have grabbed the leveller they certainly merited.

Crucially, they didn’t and Sunderland will remain engulfed in the scrap among the dregs of the Premier League table, with O’Neill’s future under even tighter scrutiny, in the week he marks his first anniversary.

Those two sides of the Black Cats, so startlingly apparent yesterday, will now dominate debate over which will be apparent against rudderless Chelsea on Saturday.

Will it be the confidence-drained timid side of the first half?

Or will it be the second half one, that was so reminiscent of the team that hurtled up the Premier League table last season?

Sunderland proved yesterday that they still have the knack of reproducing those performances and there is more than sufficient ability at O’Neill’s disposal to be comfortably clear of these unexpected relegation worries.

The big difference is that when O’Neill began his stewardship last December, he managed to put points on the board.

Increasingly alarmingly, Sunderland have lost that trait.