CONNOR Wickham scored for England Under-21s last night to intensify the debate over whether he should be allowed out on loan or offered a chance in Sunderland’s first-team squad.
The 19-year-old swooped just before half-time in the game against Northern Ireland Under-21s, heading home ex-Sunderland midfielder Jordan Henderson’s free-kick to give his side a deserved lead.
Earlier the forward had been unlucky to hit the woodwork in what proved to be a dominant display by Stuart Pearce’s men at Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road ground – England having 21 shots on goal compared to Northern Ireland’s solitary effort.
Wickham’s goal, his second in consecutive Under-21 appearances, will only increase calls among supporters for him to be included in Sunderland’s goal-shy squad rather than allowed to leave on loan.
A host of Championship clubs have been interested this season in taking the teenager Steve Bruce signed from Ipswich Town for £8m in 2011 on loan.
And at the weekend, news surfaced from Sheffield Wednesday that an agreement to take the youngster had all but been agreed for the striker to make a temporary move to Hillsborough.
So far though there has been no confirmation that a loan move to Sheffield is about to take place or even in the pipeline.
Wickham has made only one appearance for Sunderland so far this season, coming on as an 89th minute substitute for Jack Colback in the 2-1 defeat to Everton at the weekend.
And many Sunderland fans have been calling for him to be more involved in a goal-starved first team, especially with him having scored several times for Kevin Ball’s Under-21 development squad in the last few months.
It was a good night for Wickham in the Northern Ireland friendly, but also for his Sunderland team-mate Jordan Pickford, who kept a clean-sheet for England Under-19s in a 1-0 win over Finland Under-19s courtesy of a 93rd minute penalty.
Tonight Sunderland fans’ interest will mainly be on the Republic of Ireland’s game against Greece at the Aviva Stadium in which Keiren Westwood, John O’Shea and James McClean will all start while David Meyler should be on the bench.
It is expected to be a rare starting opportunity for McClean in his preferred left-wing position, and O’Shea, who will again captain the international side, believes the wide-man can shine despite finding the going tough in the opening few weeks of Sunderland’s season.
He said: “It has been tough for the team in general I think, not just James.
“It’s about a team collectively, not just about the one individual. We should all be doing a lot better.
“Our performances in the last few games have probably deserved more points than we have got, but as the manager has spoken about at club level, we will be okay as long as our attitude and our determination stays the same.
“As for James, he’s come on in leaps and bounds. He was the surprise factor last season. He came in when the manager took over, he got into the team, and took everything right in his stride.
“You are obviously more aware of a talent like that over the course of time, and now teams are marking him more tightly. They are doubling up on him.
“So it’s up to us to get the ball to James in better positions, get it to him quicker.
“It’s up to us to make sure we are giving the ball to him in situations where he can show the talent that he undoubtedly has.”