MARTIN O’NEILL believes Connor Wickham has begun to appreciate the extra demands of the Premier League.
Wickham, in contention to start today’s encounter with West Ham, has demonstrated significant progress over the last month after returning to the first-team picture.
The £8million striker grabbed only the second goal of his Sunderland career in last weekend’s FA Cup third round clash at Bolton and was the catalyst for the second half comeback from the Black Cats.
Wickham has undoubtedly proved a more consistent threat than during his maiden campaign at the Stadium of Light after being limited to just six starts last season.
The 19-year-old has been doing extra training with Sunderland’s coach Steve Guppy to bring himself up to scratch.
And O’Neill says Wickham is now showing much greater awareness of what he needs to do in the top flight to rediscover the success he enjoyed in the Championship at Ipswich, when the likes of Spurs and Liverpool both chased the teenage frontman.
“It’s an important time for Connor now,” said O’Neill.
“I think he’s started to accept what a professional footballer at this level requires. What it needs to attain that and then to stay there.
“He’s very willing and wants to come out and do some extra work which is very important.
“That goal at Bolton will have given him a lift in terms of confidence.
“And in the little cameo role that he has performed when he has come on from the bench, he’s done fine.
“Even in the game he started against Chelsea, he didn’t do too badly.”