Sometimes you have to really focus on a player during a match to gauge the progress they’re making – or lack of it.
That’s partly why I was at Selhurst Park on a minus-temperature Monday night to keep a close eye on Connor Wickham as he came up against former club Sunderland.
After an injury-hit start, the 22-year-old forward now looks to be enjoying life at Crystal Palace after a summer move from the Stadium of Light.
The Premier League clash with the Black Cats was only his fifth appearance for Palace, and it’s clear he’s being asked to play a bigger role by Alan Pardew.
The Palace boss clearly sees potential in Wickham as the spearhead in a well-balanced side – one with pace on the wings and guile in midfield.
He looked like a man playing with confidence, knowing that he has the likes of Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha supplying him, as well as French international Yohan Cabaye.
Sunderland paid an initial fee of £8m to land Wickham from Ipswich in June 2011, but his development was hampered as he found himself behind the more experienced Steven Fletcher and Stephane Sessegnon in the pecking order.
The Wearsiders’ annual struggle to avoid relegation didn’t help – a club in desperate need of points isn’t going to turn to a 20 year old unproven at the highest level for goals.
“Wickham’s energy was a key element as Palace tried to open things up”
He still managed to make 74 appearances for Sunderland, but Palace’s £7m offer (reportedly rising to £9m with adds-ons) was deemed too good to refuse.
With Sunderland playing five at the back to negate Palace’s attacking threat, Wickham’s time on the ball was short and sweet.
His one-touch link up play became his main asset rather than his ability to get behind defensive lines. It was clear Palace’s plan was to get the ball out wide to stretch Sunderland and create space for Wickham in the middle.
For a man of 6”3, his pace does not go unnoticed. This was one of the main reasons Sunderland and Ipswich used to play him on the wing, as he can also beat men and pull teams out of shape.
Wickham’s work rate was impressive. Although not seeing much of the ball, his energy was a key element as Palace tried to open things up, although on the night their cutting edge was lacking.
Being clinical in a game of half-chances is what separates good sides from the best. Palace failed to take theirs and then shot themselves in the foot late on as Jermain Defoe nipped in to capitalise on a mistake by Scott Dan and sneak the winner.
“An injury-free run of games will surely allow Wickham to find his feet again”
Pardew admitted afterwards that his team lacked composure in the final third. “Our crossing and final pass let us down. It was a simplistic game [Sunderland] played but they did it well,” he told BBC Sport.
Wickham made way for Marouane Chamakh in the 76th minute and got a warm response from the home fans who were also happy to see the fit-again Chamakh returning to action.
Wickham posed enough of a threat to keep his place in the starting XI, bearing in mind this was his first start since Palace defeated Chelsea at Stamford Bridge after which he was sidelined with a calf problem.
An injury-free run of games will surely allow him to find his feet again, however goals will have to return to the Englishman’s game as he’ll have Chamakh and Dwight Gayle waiting in the wings for any bad form.
Once touted as the next big thing after his sublime performances for Ipswich in the Championship, his emergence as an England international has since stalled. Wickham will hope now, at Palace, he’s given the chance to prove he has the ability be among the top strikers in the Premier League.