Bruce takes heat off Wickham while Bent feels the pressure
Sunderland 2 Aston Villa 2
The Stadium of Light
Monday 31 October 2011
In the aftermath of Connor Wickham's first home start for Sunderland, and his first Premier League goal, Kieran Richardson reflected on the qualities of his 18-year-old team-mate and concluded: "He has everything." On the evidence of the preceding 90 minutes, Sunderland fans would not have been inclined to disagree.
Despite his youth, Wickham showed the strength to brush off the robust attentions of Richard Dunne and James Collins, giving the veteran central defenders as good as he got.
Despite his 6ft 3in height, he showed a deftness of touch on the ball and some balletic footwork. He also produced a killer finish, rifling in an angled drive to equalise Stiliyan Petrov's stunning 20th-minute opener.
He was even born in Hereford, which automatically qualifies him for hero status on Wearside – the cathedral city having been the scene of Newcastle United's celebrated FA Cup humiliation, courtesy of Ronnie Radford and Ricky George, back in 1972.
On the day that Darren Bent returned to Wearside as a pantomime Villan, there was always going to be an opportunity for Wickham to be embraced by the baying hordes.
He snatched his chance, prospering in tandem with the similarly built, similarly nimble Nicklas Bendtner, leaving his manager with the task of keeping the inevitable praise in perspective.
"We have to be careful with him," Steve Bruce said of the teenager he signed for £8m from Ipswich in June, £16m less than Aston Villa paid for Bent in January. "The one thing I didn't want to do was throw him in at the deep end. I wanted him to be ready.
"Connor has a fantastic chance to be a very good player. He has shown that today with his left-foot finish. It is not often you get someone who is 6ft 3in who has that mobility and the good thing is he can only get better."
As for Bent, he was denied a goalscoring return by the left foot of Kieran Westwood, who took over in the home goal in the second half after Simon Mignolet suffered a broken nose. Late headers from Richard Dunne and Stéphane Sessègnon ensured that an evenly-fought contest ended justly all square – and left the home fans to give Bent more dog's abuse as he disappeared down the tunnel.
"We asked him before the game whether he wanted to be sneaked in with the hamper," Villa manager Alex McLeish said. "He'll be tougher for the result of that experience."
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