Stepping Up: Will Ipswich graduate Wickham make it with Mackems?
In the first of a mini-series looking at players who made the step up from Championship football to the Premier League over the summer, Gavin Barber relays a brief history of Ipswich Town graduate Connor Wickham, now of Sunderland.
August 15th, 2009. Ipswich Town’s first home game since the death of Sir Bobby Robson. The great man’s statue on Portman Road is almost lost amidst a vast and agreeably colourful array of scarves, flags and replica shirts laid in tribute by fans from all across the world: truly an overwhelming, stop-you-in-your-tracks sight for those ambling round the corner from the station.
The bright summer sunshine brings an unmistakeable glint to the tear-filled eyes of Town fans as they stand, motionless and awestruck, soaking up the tidal wave of grief and admiration for their former manager that rises from this sea of football love, some so overcome with emotion that they can barely focus the cameras on their iPhones.
Typically, Ipswich commemorate the occasion by stuttering to a pretty dismal and frankly fortuitous 0-0 draw with Leicester City, in what turns out to be the second of a jaw-dropping 14 games without a win at the start of the 09/10 season. The one bright feature of an otherwise lifeless performance comes in the form of a 16-year-old second-half substitute.
“What the absolute EFF”, I remember remarking to a friend at the time, “is that?”, as the alleged teenager effortlessly brushed Leicester’s burly defenders out of the way as though he were sweeping fluff off his collar. A series of deft touches and darting runs — would that his team-mates on the day had been sharp enough to capitalise on them — left Town fans in no doubt that, whatever the manifold limitations of the class of 2009, young Connor Wickham was a pretty outstanding student.
Wickham had been given his debut towards the end of the previous season. Outgoing manager Jim Magilton had made him Town’s youngest-ever first-team player by sending him on in the second half of a 3-1 home defeat by Doncaster Rovers: one of history’s least convincing attempts to bury bad news. Keen students of Things That Make Supporters Feel Old may be interested to know that Wickham wasn’t the first player born in the 1990s to appear for Ipswich’s senior team: that honour had been taken 18 months earlier by someone called Jordan Rhodes. Whatever happened to him? Oh.
Born in Hereford in 1993 (1993!!!), Connor is the son of an Army Warrant Officer, and the young Wickham lived the typically peripatetic life of the military service family. He was signed to Reading’s youth set-up until the family were moved across to Colchester. It was to Ipswich Town’s good fortune that a contact at the Madejski Stadium tipped them off about the arrival of a bona fide wonderkid just down the A12, and pretty soon Connor was on the books at Portman Road.
Wickham’s reputation locally preceded his arrival in the first team: there was a ‘buzz’ about him that was reminiscent of an unsigned band’s rave reviews on the live circuit. The fact that he was contracted to Ipswich was a big contributing factor to the club’s decision to let the aforementioned Rhodes leave for Huddersfield in 2009. Some Town fans still bemoan that decision, but few could have foreseen that Wickham’s star would rise so quickly that he himself would have been off, to the Premier League no less, a few weeks after his 18th birthday.
Which isn’t to say that Connor’s Ipswich career was an all-conquering rollercoaster of success. Roy Keane clearly had faith in the muscly frontman, but Wickham — playing, it must be said, in a highly inconsistent side — never quite managed to establish a run of form during Keane’s reign. The arrival of Paul Jewell saw Wickham take up a wide role which didn’t make the most of his talents as a striker, but did contribute to some much-needed stability for the team, and a few goals into the bargain.
On the rare occasions when Ipswich had a bigger stage to play on, he (along with the rest of the team) bombed at Chelsea in the third round of last season’s FA Cup, but impressed against Arsenal in the League Cup semi-final three days later. In amongst all that, Wickham had spearheaded the England under-17 team to victory in the 2010 European Championships, bringing him to the attention of those scouring the sports channels for a glimpse of any kind of football in the 10-minute gap between the end of the World Cup and the start of the new domestic season. (Yes, that’s you. Don’t deny it.)
When Connor signed a contract extension at Ipswich in April 2011, few Town fans believed it was anything other than a means of extracting more cash out of the inevitable summer shoppers. So it proved, but to the surprise of many it was Sunderland who emerged from the playground bundle of agents and speculators clutching the Panini sticker with Wickham’s picture on it. Spurs and Liverpool had been widely tipped as possible destinations, but with the Jordan Henderson money burning a hole in his pocket, Steve Bruce moved quickly to snap up the man who, by this stage, might as well have changed his name by deedpoll to HighlyRatedYoungIpswichStrikerConnor Wickham.
How good is he now and how good can he become? As Oscar Wilde or Confucious would probably have said if they’d only had the good fortune to live in the age of ex-professional footballers talking rubbish on TV for obscene amounts of money: the fate that must befall any young talent is that at some time they must suffer the Inanity of Shearer. And so, just over two years on from that game against Leicester, we see Connor’s first Premier League goal “analysed” by the improbably-trousered Geordie. “There’s a lot of pressure on the lad that comes with his price tag”. Ah, right. Thanks. “But the lad’s obviously got talent”. Wow, cheers for that insight Alan. Well worth the gazillion quid of your BBC salary that could have been spent on another series of The Thick Of It.
I digress. A week before the unfortunate knee injury that forced him off early at Old Trafford on Saturday, Connor’s neatly-taken goal against Aston Villa had vindicated Steve Bruce’s decision to give him a second consecutive first-team start. The contrast, in that particular game, between Wickham and another Portman Road export, Darren Bent, was an interesting one. When Bent left Ipswich for Charlton in 2005 it was with good wishes and the receipt of a decent fee, but amongst some fans there were fairly limited expectations about how he would fare at the top level. Bent’s goalscoring exploits since, and the establishment of his deserved place in the national team, have consistently confounded those doubters. By contrast, the level of anticipation around the £8m Wickham is, like the man himself, bigger than it should be at his age.
The consensus amongst the sofa-dwelling seers of the Sky Sports studios seems to be that Wickham “has everything that it takes to become a top player” and it’s therefore just a question of “whether he wants it enough”: the usual sort of fence-sitting, bet-hedging prophesy designed to disguise an ignorance of the subject. In the spirit of Danny Baker’s “sometimes right, sometimes wrong, always certain” philosophy, here’s a more decisive view: Connor Wickham WILL be a star of the future.
He will play for England and he will win things. Those component parts — the strength, the skill, the awareness, the explosive finishing — will, married with good coaching, confidence and top-flight experience, add up to something quite awesome. He may appear rough around the edges just now, but anyone who watches him play for a few games at a time can see how quickly he learns and improves.
The boy has talent, brains and a winning smile, and is just about the only footballer on Twitter who doesn’t endlessly tweet about going to Nando’s. What more do you want? Enjoy him while you have him, Sunderland. And don’t forget that sell-on fee.