This interview first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Aston Villa matchday programme – 22nd August 2015.
Having seemingly been around for years, it’s easy to forget that Connor Wickham is just 22-years-old. He made his professional debut before taking his GCSEs, but a promising start at Ipswich Town gave way to setbacks at Sunderland. Now at Palace, he’s hoping that he can get back on track and fulfil the considerable promise that could yet see him become one of the league’s most lethal goalscorers.
It was two minutes into the second half of last week’s game against Arsenal when Connor Wickham’s eyes lit up. Anticipating a fine delivery from Wilfried Zaha on the right flank, the striker raced towards the winger’s cross, leaving Hector Bellerin for dead. It was the chance he was waiting for, in more ways than one.
Starved of opportunities to play in his natural centre-forward position during the majority of his time at Sunderland, Wickham was handed a chance up top on his first start for the Eagles and thought this cross was his time to make an instant impression.
Making good contact with the ball, he beat Petr Cech but saw his attempt thud off the post and spin back into play. That kind of hard luck was the story of Palace’s afternoon, but that moment was a glimpse of what is to come. Positional reassurance from Alan Pardew and plenty of ammunition supplied by Zaha, Bolasie, Puncheon and co could mean that the striker is fully equipped to unlock the potential that he has been brimming with for years.
Having been on the footballing map for a while now, Wickham possesses plenty of pedigree despite being only 22. Indeed, he currently has a better league goals per game ratio than Alan Shearer did when the Premier League’s record scorer was the Palace man’s age before his career-defining move to Blackburn Rovers.
Wickham is hoping his transfer earlier this month will have the same effect, saying: “I moved here first and foremost because the manager told me I’ll play up front. I needed to play as a striker and I didn’t get that opportunity at all at Sunderland so that was a
massive factor for me.
“You can see in training every day the talent that Wilfried and Yannick have, so with defenders always backing off them there aren’t too many who can stop them. Everybody knows what they’re about so I just want to get on the end of their crosses and put the chances away. Wilf put the ball in for me to hit the post against Arsenal which was unlucky, on another day that would have flown in.
“The gaffer also said that there are players here that I can learn from and hopefully I’ll bring something different to the team that they can learn off me, so it works both ways.
“It was also important for me to move back down south closer to home and be back around my family so all in all it was the perfect move. It’s just good to be playing football again.”
That’s not surprising when you remember that the Hereford-born hitman has been playing at no lower than the Championship since being thrust into the spotlight less than two weeks after his 16th birthday, when he became Ipswich Town’s youngest ever player as a 66th minute substitute against Doncaster Rovers in April 2009.
Keeping up with his school studies, a naïve but fearless youngster would soon be regularly balancing the playground with the training ground as he gained glowing reports at Portman Road. Six goals the following season was the first signs that this was someone destined for the top.
“To be honest I just took it in my stride,” he reflected. “I was ready for it; I’d been travelling and training with the squad for almost a year before I got my debut so it was good. My family were excited and everyone came down for the game and I was obviously buzzing because at the time I was still in school.
“Back when I was 16 it was all about the adrenalin and the rush you get of playing and stamping your mark on the game. I went onto the pitch and I wasn’t scared of anyone because I didn’t know what to expect.
“It was odd at the time, I was trying to juggle doing my GCSEs with travelling on Friday nights to games but it was exciting. I was the talk of the school – they were great with me and so it was a good experience and one I can look back on and be proud of.”
His stock rose further during the summer of 2010 in the unlikely setting of Liechtenstein. Representing England’s under-17 side, Wickham and his teammates including Ross Barkley, Saido Berahino and Jack Butland made history when they became the first side wearing the Three Lions to lift an international trophy at any age level for a generation.
Having made his mark earlier in the tournament, Wickham scored a sublime winning goal in the UEFA European Under-17 Championship final against Spain, and was subsequently crowned Player of the Tournament to only heighten the hype surrounding his name.
“I think we were the first England team since 1993 to actually win a trophy so that was amazing,” Wickham remembers. “I didn’t score in any of the qualifying games but then I scored twice against France in the semis and got the winner in the final and that was great, not just for me but for the country. It got well publicised and it is something that we can all look back on and be proud that we did something for our country.
“It also helped put me on the map, especially with England, and it’s important to play well for your country because you play with a bunch of lads that you don’t get to train with every week so it’s difficult to go into the set-up but it’s exciting and something I’m proud to have done.”
More individual accolades came his way when he was named both the Championship’s Young Player and Apprentice of the Year after hitting nine goals in 37 outings in Suffolk in 2010/11, many of which were from the top drawer. Mazy 70- yard runs, powerful volleys, brave headers and a coolness from the penalty spot showed he had all the attributes to be a star.
He got his top-flight chance possibly earlier than expected when Sunderland parted with £8 million to take him away from Portman Road in June 2011, making him the then-most expensive player to switch from the Football League to the Premier League, but gametime at the Stadium of Light quickly made way for a spot in the shadows when Martin O’Neill replaced Steve Bruce a couple of months later.
With his career seemingly at an impasse, an unexpected opportunity in March 2014 saw him carve his name into Black Cats folklore. Recalled from a fruitful loan spell with Sheffield Wednesday, he scored five goals in three successive games, including away trips to Manchester City and Chelsea, to help Sunderland complete a miraculous escape from the clutches of relegation.
Looking back on a mixed four years in the north-east, Wickham said: “Sunderland probably didn’t work out as well as I wanted it to. It wasn’t great for me personally – I didn’t get a chance to play in my out and out position which is disappointing because that’s what I went up there to do and what I got told was going to happen.
“I went on loan to Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United and remember the gaffer [Gus Poyet] calling me at 11 o’clock on a Tuesday night saying he needed me for training the next day. I had to prove a few people wrong and I played up front and scored five goals and that escape has gone down in Sunderland history.
“Even after that I went back to playing on the left wing which was difficult. I had to do a job for the team and I did it. It was good to stay up but I never want to be in that position again.
“However I’ve got to move on now. The gaffer here has told me I’m a striker and it’s good that he knows that, and I’ve just got to prove to him and everyone else that I’m still good enough.”
That isn’t something that Pardew seems to have any concerns about. Keen to get his new striker up and running, Wickham was pulling on a Palace shirt in a friendly at Dagenham and Redbridge with the ink still drying on his contract. A full debut occurred as a substitute at Ipswich’s heated rivals Norwich City on the opening day before his first league start last
weekend, and he’s now aiming to score the top-flight goals that he
has promised for so long.
“My first day here was a busy one – I travelled down, did a medical, trained and then played all in the same day!” he said. “It was a long one but it was good to get a run out and put the shirt on for the first time. To do it in the Premier League though is a different story. That was pretty sweet for me because I don’t think I’ve ever won at Norwich before so personally it was great.
“I just have to focus on my football now and take every day and each game as they come and what will happen will happen. I just have to play the best that I can and prove to everybody that I’m capable of doing what I’ve done before and why there was so much potential.”