CONNOR Wickham’s baptism of fire to the Premier League was a harrowing one.
The 18-year-old made his Sunderland debut as an 81st minute substitute in August’s defeat to Newcastle United as the Black Cats unsuccessfully attempted to reverse a one-goal deficit.
But Wickham should be better prepared in his second taste of a North-East derby this weekend, with the £8million summer signing in line to replace the injured Nicklas Bendtner in the starting line-up.
Wickham has made a further 13 appearances for Sunderland since his top flight bow, starting five times and playing almost 80 minutes in last weekend’s victory over Swansea City.
With more than just bragging right at stakes against Middlesbrough on Sunday, Wickham hopes he can help Sunderland advance to the FA Cup fifth round for the first time in eight years.
Wickham told SportMail: “To come on for my first game in a derby was brilliant, but it was just about getting on the pitch and playing.
“It’s intense, but that’s all derbies – it’s not just Newcastle-Sunderland.
“There’s going to be tension and the atmosphere will be good, but it’s down to the players to put that aside and win the game.
“This is a derby and hopefully we can go through to the next round.
“Obviously the big teams are playing against each other and we’ve got a good derby game at home.
“Hopefully the crowd can get behind us and we can do it.”
Wickham will be the favourite to take Bendtner’s spot in the starting line-up after replacing the Dane against Swansea City last weekend.
Despite Ji Dong-won boasting more goals than the England U21 international and Fraizer Campbell returning to fitness, Wickham is firmly in Martin O’Neill’s plans after starting the Sunderland manager’s first game in charge despite just two days of training.
But Wickham knows he needs to add to his goals tally after a solitary strike for the Black Cats – October’s Stadium of Light equaliser against Aston Villa.
“It’s now my job to get back into the team and get back to what I was doing before and show the manager that I’m capable of starting,” he added.
“I hope I can get get the goals we’ve been looking for.
“The boys are performing at the moment so it’s down to me in training and show on and off the pitch that I’m ready to play.”