ENGLAND U21 boss Stuart Pearce has backed Connor Wickham to become a “top Premier League striker”.
But the former Three Lions defender insists Wickham still has much to learn if he is to fulfil the potential which saw Steve Bruce pay £8million to bring the teenage hitman to Sunderland during the summer.
Wickham has made five appearances under Pearce for the under-21s in the past year after graduating from the England youth set-up.
While the 18-year-old is yet to open his account for the U21s, the former Ipswich striker has made his mark in the Premier League after breaking his Sunderland duck against Aston Villa last month.
But Pearce believes Wickham’s encouraging start to Premier League life, or his imposing 6ft 4in frame, shouldn’t mask his tender years.
Pearce told the Echo: “I have no doubts that Connor will develop into a top Premier League striker.
“But time will tell with that.
“Sometimes it gets lost on managers, coaches and supporters, that lads who are big in stature are older than their years, but they’re not.
“They’re still growing up and they’ve got a young mentality and are still growing into their bodies.
“As I always tell the players, having some form of talent that we all can see and arriving at the end product, which might be a Rooney or a Lampard, is a long journey.
“It involves a lot of commitment and a multitude of things to go in your direction.
“Connor has got the tools and Steve saw fit to pay a lot of money for a young man with a lot of credentials.
“He’s got a European Championship U17 winning medal and there’s not a lot of them flying around. At international level he’s been part of a winning team which is good.
“But he needs supporting all the way and educating as a footballer.”
Wickham saw his progress halted after sustaining knee ligament damage at Manchester United earlier this month in what was his third successive start for the Black Cats.
Pearce admits it will be a huge boost to Wickham if he can hold down a starting spot, with too many of the under-21 players restricted to fringe roles at their clubs.
“It was a plus for us for Connor to start a few games,” said Pearce. “The more players in our squad who play week-in, week-out the better.
“We have too many who are sat on benches or not even there. When our squad meet up, we always look at how many games they’ve played and how recently they’ve played.
“Connor had obviously just broken into the first team at Sunderland which was pleasing for Steve.
“And it’s pleasing for us as well.
“It gives us a better idea of where he is at the moment and how his form is going.
“All young players need to develop by playing games.”
Pearce was speaking at the announcement that Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium will host the U21s’ European Championship qualifier with Belgium on Wednesday, February 29 (kick-off 6pm).
The former Newcastle defender added: “We’ve not been up in my tenure to the North East and I’m looking forward to coming up here.
“I had two fantastic seasons here and obviously I’ve got a great affinity to the people in this part of the world.
“Middlesbrough have supported England fantastically well and we’ve had a lot of people come through from there, like Lee Cattermole.
“It gives the local community a real connection to the squad when they know some of the faces in it.”
Tickets, priced at £10 for adults and £5 for children, will be available from Tuesday, November 29 on 0844 4991234 or by visiting www.mfc.co.uk.