All White Now: playing for Leeds week in, week out was more important than the League Cup final for loan ace
A Wembley showpiece was the personal cost of Connor Wickham’s loan to Leeds United but Wickham is not the superficial sort.
One League Cup final felt like meagre consolation for weeks of nothing, just as an £8m transfer fee is little more than a price on his head.
Wickham will make his debut for Leeds at Queens Park Rangers tomorrow, a Championship game which Sky Sports intend to broadcast but a warm-up for other events this weekend. At the same time, his parent club Sunderland prepare for Sunday and their first appearance in a cup final since 1992. They have spoken about nothing else on Wearside this week.
Gus Poyet, the Sunderland manager, would have included the striker in his squad at Wembley and the decision to leave was essentially Wickham’s. What the 20-year-old realised – and what Poyet himself said – was that the end of the season would be a quiet time for Wickham if he opted to stay at the Stadium of Light. “Connor’s not assured of being in the squad week in, week out,” Poyet admitted.
That might change next season and Wickham’s emergency loan to Elland Road was not completed with a view to a permanent deal, or not according to him. He has potentially sacrificed a League Cup winners’ medal this weekend but the bigger picture – something he has thought about time again since joining Sunderland for £8m in 2011 – suggested that two months with Leeds made more sense.
“I hope I would have been involved at Wembley,” Wickham said. “I helped the team get through the rounds to the final so I’d have liked to have been there. But first things first. I want to play football and if I’m not going to play – regardless of whether it’s at Wembley or anywhere else – then I’d rather do what I’m paid to do.
“Good luck to the lads. I’ll watch the game on Sunday but I won’t be there. I’ll be focusing on Leeds.”
His attitude made United’s negotiations with him and Sunderland straightforward. From the outset, Brian McDermott liked the cut of his jib. The Leeds manager first came across Wickham while the forward was an 11-year-old at Reading but Wickham moved on to Ipswich Town – the club who made his career – when his father, a member of the Armed Forces, relocated there.
McDermott’s recollection of a young Wickham is hazy – “he was only 11 so I can’t honestly remember that far back but I knew we’d lost a player” – but their conversations this week were compelling. Wickham – a battering ram of a centre-forward – asked McDermott immediately if he could have the vacant number nine shirt at Leeds. “That was impressive in itself,” McDermott said.
United’s boss was equally taken by Wickham when the striker acted as chief tormentor during Leeds’ 6-0 thrashing by Sheffield Wednesday last month. Wickham was on loan at Hillsborough and his overbearing presence stuck in McDermott’s mind, as well as “sticking in my throat.”
Eight goals in 11 games for Wednesday made Wickham feel that his natural game had returned.
By his own admission, the years have been hard since Sunderland paid Ipswich an eye-catching sum for a teenager who made his debut at 16: nine starts, the odd goal and two loans in Sheffield.
“It has been difficult, I suppose,” he said. “When I was 18 I moved 300 miles away from home. My family moved with me so I wasn’t all by myself but it has been difficult not playing as much as I would have liked – making the move and not playing, being undecided.
“But it’s been sorted in the last year and I’ve started playing football again, even though it’s not in the Premier League. You’ve got to make the best of what you’ve got and hopefully I’m on the right track.
“I’m only 20 years age so I could have another 15 or 16 years left in my career. I started so young and people maybe think I’m older than I am. I’ve got time on my side and I see myself as a Premier League player.”
Was the move to Sunderland too early in his career? “Looking back, maybe it was,” Wickham said. “But you can’t read the future or go back.
“At the time it seemed like the right thing for me and at the time I was excited. I was 18 and getting a move to the Premier League. I wanted to go. It hasn’t worked out how it planned but that’s football. It never goes to plan.
“I’ve matured since Ipswich and maybe being in a sense shut out from the team has matured me in a way which means I can handle the game better than when I was 16. Hopefully I’ll go back to Sunderland a better player and more in their plans.”
Sheffield Wednesday made their own attempt to re-sign Wickham but gave up on him when the forward made clear his intention to join Leeds. “There was other interest in me but Leeds were the big club that came in,” he said. “It’s where I wanted to come. As soon as the call came in, I said to my agent ‘get me there.’
“Football’s a small world and obviously you’re going to lose a few friends. But I’m thankful to Sheffield for what they did for me. They gave me the opportunity when maybe no-one else would and I did well. But it’s good to be here and good to be at a big club.”
Wickham has the makings of the perfect partner for Ross McCormack, United’s captain and the only member of their squad who has produced a striker’s tally of goals this season. The Scot’s form is keeping Leeds in touch with the play-offs but contributions from elsewhere – from Wickham and others – will dictate United’s unlikely attempt to breach the top six.
“I’ve spoken to Ross and he’s a good lad,” Wickham said. “I’ve seen him score goals for a number of years in the Championship. He’s a brilliant player.
“If we link up and play together then I think we can both do the same job and stick the ball in the net. But me coming here doesn’t guarantee me a place. It doesn’t guarantee me games. I’ve got to prove that the manager’s brought me here for the right reasons, not just to pass the time.”