MARTIN O’Neill has sympathy with Connor Wickham’s plight – and has backed the Sunderland striker to come good once he returns to fitness.
The 19-year-old has been sidelined for several weeks now by an ankle injury which will keep him out of tomorrow’s game at Fulham and looks to have ended his season prematurely.
But even when he was fully fit, the teenager was struggling to make the impact expected of a player Sunderland paid £8million for last summer.
It is still hoped Wickham will develop into a Premier League star over the next season or two.
However, O’Neill feels that the only way he is likely to start to deliver on his raw talent is if he plays games regularly – an opportunity he has not been able to get at Sunderland so far.
“It has been very difficult for Connor because since I’ve been here it has been stop-start for him,” said the Black Cats boss.
“It’s as much to do with injuries as anything else.
“I’m quite sure Connor would benefit from a real run in the team.
“But that is something – because of the nature of our position in December, January and a good part of February – we couldn’t afford, that luxury of allowing players to play four or five games to bed themselves in.”
Such talk will only fuel speculation that Wickham could be heading out on a season-long, or half-season-long loan when the new season gets under way.
Former club Ipswich has been mooted as his most likely destination should he be allowed to hone his skills away from the Stadium of Light.
However, O’Neill has held the door open for the club’s developing players to stake their Sunderland claims ahead of the new campaign beginning.
“It has been a problem for us in giving our younger players opportunities – specifically because our league position did not allow that,” he added.
“So from that viewpoint, pre-season suddenly becomes very important for these young players.
“To begin with, we have a very hectic schedule, playing in the Peace Cup out in Korea – so there are plenty of games and there will be plenty of chances in the close season for those that show they deserve them.
“If the younger players don’t get an opportunity now then they will certainly get a great opportunity in pre-season.”