WHEN STEVE Bruce recruited two rookie strikers in the summer of 2011, he predicted it would take “two or three years” for them to make an impact on Wearside.
Well, two years down the line, a half or so each for Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-won provided an ideal opportunity to compare and contrast their progress.
The difference between their respective impacts couldn’t have been starker.
It was almost as acute as the gulf between Sunderland’s performance in an utterly dismal opening 78 minutes and the incredible finale which followed to spare the Black Cats’ blushes.
When Sunderland were looking to ship out players at the end of last season to free up funds on the wage bill, Ji seemed an obvious contender.
That memorable last-gasp winner against Manchester City aside, Ji’s first coming at the Stadium of Light had been characterised by a rawness which the South Korean was unable to shake off.
Ji didn’t feature for the first-team at all during the opening half of last season and on the strength of his performances for the Under-21s, it was easy to see why.
But a January loan exit proved the ideal tonic for the striker.
Ji impressed in keeping Augsburg in the German top flight and it didn’t go unnoticed, with a host of Bundesliga clubs vying to sign the 22-year-old on a permanent basis during the summer.
But the departure never materialised.
Sunderland received healthy offers for Ji - one thought to be around the £4million mark - but they rejected them.
Paolo Di Canio was sufficiently impressed by Ji’s technique during pre-season to hand him another chance in red and white and envisaged the former Chunnam Dragons man providing a contrasting option in his five-strong striking department.
A half at Southampton was an opportunity for Ji to prove he has a future at the Stadium of Light, but last night was THE golden chance to make a point and perhaps even unseat Stephane Sessegnon in the XI for Saturday’s trip to Crystal Palace.
But Ji fluffed his lines and then some.
He wasn’t alone.
Plenty in red and white were guilty of a horrifyingly lackadaisical air which had all the hallmarks of last season’s shameful cup exits to Bolton and Boro.
It transmitted into a more than deserved two-goal lead for MK Dons, despite the League One outfit leaving out six of the side which drew 2-2 with Bristol City on Saturday.
Credit to Karl Robinson’s side for the style and strategy with which they threatened a cup exit for so long.
But whether through a lack of confidence or lack of composure, Ji was the one who stood out in red and white for all the wrong reasons.
His seventh minute giveaway to Delle Alli set up the opening goal, even if Valentin Roberge and Vito Mannone hardly helped to redeem him his error.
And then moments later, a dreadful pass on the edge of the MK Dons area caused Di Canio to immediately instruct Wickham to warm up.
The complete lack of cohesion between Sunderland’s front two continued and it was only a thunderous effort from Jozy Altidore on the stroke of half-time which finally handed the Black Cats a meaningful effort.
After a strenuous warm-up at half-time, it was a genuine surprise that Di Canio didn’t make the a straight swap at the interval.
But the reprieve lasted just three-and-a-half minutes, as Wickham replaced Ji to thunderous applause from the sparsely populated Stadium of Light.
Wickham didn’t immediately tear through MK Dons and he isn’t suddenly an all-conquering saviour for Sunderland at this tender stage of the season.
Steven Fletcher, back on the bench again last night, remains the biggest hope of providing the necessary goals for Sunderland’s Premier League campaign.
But what Wickham does do is occupy the attention of opposition defenders.
That is why supporters have been crying out for the 20-year-old to be given a chance since long before Di Canio’s arrival and why they remain puzzled that he hasn’t been given a sustained opportunity.
Wickham made the first with his ball through for Altidore, albeit the tiring Dons defence had done their best Red Sea impersonation.
And then he started the move for the equaliser by bringing the ball down on the edge of the opposition penalty area.
His second - if by some miracle he is credited with it - was entirely due to fortune, rather than precision, but at least Wickham had the temerity to try his luck.
Di Canio kicked a chunk out of the advertising boards in celebration - or perhaps relief - after seeing the ball deflect so dramatically into the far corner.
The head coach knows that even though this is such a tender stage of the season, Sunderland could ill-afford a cup exit as he strives to inject some momentum into his transformation of the side.
Sunderland’s players at least admitted afterwards that dramatic improvement is needed and the mistakes need ironing out.
But Di Canio wasn’t short on eye-openers and that is perhaps more valuable than if Sunderland had enjoyed a comfortable, mundane 1-0 win.
Chief among those has to be that Wickham is an option who deserves to be introduced before the 80th minute.