Connor Wickham: Can the Wonderkid Find Himself Again?

Connor Wickham: Can the Wonderkid Find Himself Again?

Hailing from a country starved of success on the international stage for such an extended period of time, the emergence of a young English striking prodigy never fails to set pulses racing amongst followers of the English national team. More often than not, the youngster, fresh faced and having only just broken in to his clubs first team, is thrown into the spotlight, and fans start to wonder whether their new messiah has arisen. Unfortunately for many that succumb to such attention, the hopes and expectations of a nation prove too much to bear, and the youngster joins a long line of ‘what ifs’ of English football, confined to the obscurity of the lower half of the Premier League. Fleeting examples of the potential once shown comes and goes, but proves to never be enough to secure the dream move to a Premier League title contender many expected to materialise. An example of such a starlet fallen from grace is Sunderland striker, Connor Wickham. The Hereford born winger moved from one side of the country to another when he signed for Ipswich’s academy from Reading, and it was with the Tractor Boys where the forward made his name. Prolific at youth level, former manager, Jim Magilton, felt Wickham ready to test himself in the senior side, and the youngster made his debut in a home defeat to Doncaster Rovers (a factor which probably decided the manager’s fate only 11 days later).

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His club’s youngest ever player, Wickham scored two goals in a league cup tie at Shrewsbury, before he found the net with his first league goal with a last minute effort against Scunthorpe to secure his side the win, and a place in the hearts of the Ipswich faithful. All of this was achieved by the time he signed his first professional contract, and such promise attracted a bid from Tottenham Hotspur, which was quickly rejected by his side. Perhaps a move to a side with European aspirations would have suited Wickham, but after two years of impressive form in which he became a regular fixture in the Ipswich side, Wickham moved to Sunderland in a deal rising to £12 million, and the rest as they say is history. Unfortunately for Black Cats fans, Wickham’s history with the club will not be written into Wearside folklore and the forward slowly but surely became another one of those ‘next big things’ which didn’t quite make the cut. The player struggled in the North East, and after a single goal in two years, found himself shipped out on loan to Sheffield Wednesday. In the Championship, Wickham showed why many had touted him as a future star, and 8 goals in 11 appearances fired Connor back into the plans of the Sunderland management. Wickham was well used last season, and in 36 appearances found the net on 5 occasions. Playing in a side which avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth, Wickham struggled for goals, and with the arrival of Jermaine Defoe was often deployed out wide; definitely not his strongest position.

At the age of 22 and still only in the early stages of his already six year old career, Wickham was running the risk of stagnating at Sunderland, and it seemed the player would not improve himself at the club. With that in mind, the bid lodged by Crystal Palace manager, Alan Pardew, would undoubtedly have come as a welcome surprise to the striker, and the chance to kick-start his career was an opportunity the player could not turn down. A new manager, surroundings and team mates would allow Wickham to redefine his career, and at a tender age, does Wickham have the ability to replicate the form once shown, and finally fulfil the potential which saw him labelled as an England number 9?

Crystal Palace is undoubtedly a club with ambition. New manager, and former star, Alan Pardew, took charge midway through last season, and in that time, took the club on an impressive run of results that saw them stride away from the dreaded relegation battle and sit comfortably in mid table. Recruitment this summer has been minimal, but after proving his ability to withdraw the best from his current crop, the manager has deemed excessive spending to be unnecessary. The money he has spent though can be considered nothing short of breath taking.  The arrival of French midfielder and former PSG and Newcastle star, Yohan Cabaye is a coup. Linked with the Premier League top 4 less than 2 years ago, Cabaye has re-joined the Premier League with a point to prove after his unsuccessful stint in his homeland, and Pardew has acquired a player that has the ability to dictate and dominate Premier League midfields.

Wickham is a big, strong, powerful player capable of causing havoc in the box. The former Ipswich man has all the physical attributes of a classic English number 9, and it is in this role that Pardew must utilise the player, and not out wide where previous managers have wasted the forward’s capabilities. With the the impressive Yannick Bolasie and Jason Puncheon in their ranks, Palace have players that can dig out a cross, and Wickham is a player more than capable at getting on the end of telling balls. His height and finishing ability aid in this, and when provided with quality support, Wickham will surely find the back of the net more often than not. Despite his size, Wickham is no slouch, and being paired with fellow giant, Marouane Chamakh, may see Wickham play just off the Moroccan, but it is Pardew’s other attacking options that may well prove to compliment the Englishman the most. The pace and movement of forwards Frazier Campbell and Dwight Gayle will create the space Wickham requires to get himself into goal scoring positions, and a partnership with either of the pair could see the Eagles soar. Loan signing and last year’s Championship Player of the Season, Patrick Bamford, is another young player signed up to the Palace cause, and the Chelsea loanee may prove to be a deadly accomplice of Wickham. A youthful front two eager to impress may prove clinical, and Pardew has a wealth of options in his arsenal of attacking talents.

With the side that Pardew is building, chances will come in abundance, and with Cabaye proving to be a Premier League assist maestro with 17 from the middle whilst at Newcastle, and with inspirational captain, Mile Jedinak alongside, Palace have a very strong midfield. Perhaps that is something that Wickham lacked whilst at Sunderland, and support from behind may be enough to relieve Wickham of the burden of expectation, something he must have keenly felt whilst carrying Sunderland to safety at the back end of last season.

Although undoubted, untapped potential still exists within the player, and Wickham has proven that form comes to him at the business end of the season with his performances that kept Sunderland up, the rest of last season in particular was far from impressive, and the striker did little suggest he merits a forward step in the progression of his career. 3 goals by the end of January was a tally only added to by 2 goals in 2 games in April, and Wickham will have to work on his consistency if he wishes to use Palace as a springboard to a top 6 side. It was previously mentioned that the player will be surrounded by a better crop of colleagues who complement his attacking instincts more effectively than his Sunderland team mates, but a player cannot rely on those around alone to muster form, and must prove on an individual level that when chances are made, they are taken. The centre forward position is a role which relies heavily upon service, but once again, Wickham must prove his credentials of taking chances when presented. This will be something the Crystal Palace manager will have mulled over, and despite Wickham’s talent evident, Pardew will be sure to acknowledge that the transfer does present something of a risk to his side. Sky Sports have reported the fee to be in the region of £9 million, a notable sum for a club of the Londoners stature. Pardew will seek a quick return from his investment, and if Wickham does not deliver early into his Eagle’s career, then those waiting in the wings will pounce on the opportunity to regain a starting spot. Such a large investment suggests Pardew views Wickham as the man to lead the line, and at 22, the manager may feel Wickham is a player in which a team can be built around. This places an element of pressure on the player once more, pressure which the player has arguably handled well in Sunderland’s relegation dogfights, and if Wickham finds form in the early stages of the new campaign and exhibits the ability to perform consistently, then he may find himself leading the Palace line for years to come.

6 years after bursting onto the scene, this is Connor Wickham’s biggest opportunity to really establish himself as a top Premier League striker. Being afforded the opportunity to lead the line of an ambitious side is an enticing proposition, and after several mediocre years at Sunderland, many will count Wickham as extremely fortunate to receive such an offer. The upcoming season will undoubtedly be his most defining yet, and success in his first campaign with the Eagles may be enough to convince Pardew and Palace fans that the player is the man in which a team may be built around, and if Wickham secures such an accolade, than he will surely go on to achieve great things in South London. Having been around for such a long period of time, it is easy to forget the player’s tender age, and at 22, Wickham may still go on to fulfil the potential which led many to tout him as England’s next number 9. With Harry Kane currently leading the charge for the prestigious title, Wickham has a lot of making up to do, but the big forward has enough in his tank to mount a charge similar to that of Kane’s, and in the next few years, and maybe perhaps by Russia 2018, the dominating partnership of Kane and Wickham will be making headlines across the globe. Only time will tell, but as an English football fan, I can always live in hope.