Richard Hercock: Top-flight spotlight casts unfair glare on ‘under-performers’

Connor Wickham

Connor Wickham

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There were a few bemused glances from TV viewers in the north of Sheffield on Monday evening. For 78 minutes, Sunderland persisted in operating Connor Wickham in a wide midfield role.

It was an unaccustomed position for the former England Under-21 striker, whose goals last season arguably kept the Black Cats in the Premier League.

But the criticism Wickham received – he will always be battered with his £8.1m tranfer fee – was very harsh.

BBC Radio Five pundit Steve Claridge was not shy in moaning about Wickham, while former Sunderland defender Michael Gray tweeted: “Wickham??? What does he contribute? I just don’t see it #safc”, which prompted some nasty replies.

“He’s average is an insult to average” was one particularly cutting reply.

Wickham has never really settled in the north east, at least looking at it from the outside, and it was 12 months ago this week when he headed to Sheffield Wednesday on loan.

The Owls were struggling at the foot of the Championship, yet his eight goals in 11 games – Wednesday thrashed Reading 5-2 and Leeds 6-0 – transformed their season and installed Wickham as a Hillsborough favourite.

He followed that with an unsuccessful loan spell at Leeds United before returning to Sunderland to help rescue a season which looked like ending in relegation.

He netted four goals, including two at Manchester City, as the future Premier League champions were pegged back 2-2 at home.

Wickham was then influential as another double helped the Black Cats thrash Cardiff City 4-0 at the Stadium of Light – which, on reflection, was the game which saved their season.

So looking back to Monday night, it seemed rather harsh to attack Wickham, who was asked to sacrifice his own forward flair to operate in a wide midfield role.

How his former club, Wednesday, would love to have an “average” player like Wickham in their employment this season.

Then again, no striker is immune to criticism, particularly when it comes to the Premier League.

Even Sergio Aguero was getting little appreciation from the Sky commentators in the Manchester derby, before he popped up with a second-half winner for City.

The Argentinian striker has netted 12 goals for the champions this term and but for an inspired David de Gea in United’s goal, would have had at least one more to his tally.

A tantalising cross from the left looked perfect for Aguero, who had easily lost his markers, but de Gea rushed out to smother the chance.

De Gea, too, like Wickham, is no stranger to criticism from the sidelines but has shown his class, although maybe that is because he is overworked behind a poor United rearguard.

I guess getting stick just comes with the territory in the Premier League, no matter who you play for or how much you cost.

As for Wickham, he is a quality player and Sunderland should really persevere with him in a forward position.

If not, I know a club in South Yorkshire who would love to have him back.

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