CONNOR Wickham will hope to hand Steve Bruce an early Christmas present by returning to the first-team before the festive season.
But the teenage striker could be back even sooner after a diagnosis on the knee damaged just two minutes into Sunderland’s game against Manchester United suggested he will be sidelined somewhere between four to six weeks.
It is believed none of the major ligaments have been damaged, but a stabilising ligament at the back of the knee has been stretched and will need time to heal.
The news that Wickham’s injury is not bad as first feared has come as a massive relief to the club.
The Black Cats could have been facing a ligament injury on the scale of those suffered by Wickham’s team-mates Fraizer Campbell and David Meyler recently – an injury which would have put the 18-year-old out for the rest of the season.
As it is, Bruce could welcome the youngster back before Christmas, although Sunderland will still face an uphill job coping in his absence.
With Wickham out, the club has only two out-and-out strikers to call on – Nicklas Bendtner and Ji Dong-won – although both Kieran Richardson and Stephane Sessegnon feel comfortable playing in the strike roles.
The freak injury comes at a time when fixtures are set to come thick and fast, Sunderland having seven games between now and the end of the year.
If Wickham comes back within four weeks of the injury he should miss only three games – the home matches to Fulham and Wigan and the away trip to Wolves.
But if he takes the full six weeks, he will also miss the games against Blackburn, Spurs and possibly QPR on December 21.
Either way, though, it is a far better scenario than Wickham missing the remainder of the campaign.
Sunderland are now being stretched by injuries and suspensions, with Wickham, Simon Mignolet and John O’Shea sidelined and Seb Larsson missing the Fulham game through suspension.
In those circumstances, they can ill-afford to lose Wickham for any length of time.
But having already lost fellow forward Asamoah Gyan this season, the January transfer window could be interesting, with Bruce now only able to call on three strikers even when Wickham is fit.
Whether or not owner Ellis Short does make cash available to spend in the window remains to be seen, but if injuries pile up over Christmas this season like they did last, he might find himself facing little other choice.