The England Under-17 team facing the Netherlands in Malta on Wednesday night in the European Championship final should listen to the words of Connor Wickham. Four years ago, Wickham scored the winner as England beat Spain 2-1 in the final of the same competition in Liechtenstein. His advice to the next generation – the likes of Patrick Roberts, Dominic Solanke and the rest – is first to win and then to "stay level-headed" afterwards, as they embark on the arduous path from teenage stardom to a successful career in the professional game.
Wickham is just 21 but he is experienced in club and international football and has a good idea now of the challenges facing young English talents trying to build a future at the highest level.
Of the victorious England team of 2010, only Ross Barkley is on the plane to Brazil next week and the Everton midfielder is the sole player who has managed to become a regular fixture in a top Premier League side. "It could have been me," Wickham admitted, "but that is football."
Wickham joined Sunderland from Ipswich for £8m one year after that triumph in Vaduz but it has only been in the last few months that he has started to make the impact many predicted. The striker was an integral figure in Sunderland's remarkable escape from relegation, scoring five crucial goals as they clambered to safety.
This summer's World Cup is the last international tournament Wickham intends to watch on television. "I want to get in the England set-up as soon as possible," he said, "that is my aim for next season."
How best to develop young players is very topical and for all the talk of "B Teams", Wickham is a clear example of the benefits of the loan system. Struggling for opportunities on Wearside last autumn, he was sent to Sheffield Wednesday, where eight goals in 12 games for the Championship club brought his confidence back. "It was a personal choice, I asked [manager Gus Poyet] go to out," he said. "I kept pestering and pestering him and asking 'if I'm not playing, can I go?' Thankfully, in the end, he did let me. Sometimes you have to take a step backwards to go forwards. It stood me in good stead and propelled me towards the first team at Sunderland."
Of course, Wickham could have stayed and played Under-21s for Sunderland but competitive games are far more helpful. "There is a massive difference," he added. "In Under-21s sometimes you are playing against younger players, or against experienced pros. But the Football League is more demanding, everyone has to be on the ball, you cannot slack. You've got to have the right attitude and the right focus."
Wickham is keenly aware of the good effect that loan spells have had for other England players; Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and Danny Sturridge were all loaned out. "It has done them well, and hopefully I can just follow them."
With big clubs spending more and more to import players from abroad, young English prospects need another route to establish themselves. "The top teams have got so much money these days, they can invest in a player who is ready now, so they don't have to take risks," said Wickham. "It limits the chances of other players. That is why the loan system is good, it gives players a chance to prove to their parent club that they are good enough to play."
That is precisely what happened to Wickham, who demonstrated at Wednesday and at Leeds United that he was good enough for Sunderland, and he was back playing Premier League football in March.
"We were seven points adrift, things couldn't really get any worse. The manager just said 'go and do what you have been doing'. That gave me confidence. I just went out and thankfully scored a few goals, and we got ourselves out of the situation."
Wickham has clear admiration for Poyet and hopes the Uruguayan stays at Sunderland this summer. "Of course, we all want him to stay," he said. "Training is good, he is very down to earth, you can always talk to him. He is open to suggestions from players. He knows exactly what he wants and is very organised, it took us until the last five games of the season to show it."
The aim for Sunderland – and Wickham – now is to carry on the good work produced in the final few games of the campaign. "We've got to take our form into the start of next season," he said.
"I need to make sure that I'm in the team every single week next season and prove to people that I am no flash in the pan. Ever since my debut [April 2009] I have wanted first-team football. It's like a bug, you can never beat the feeling of walking out in front of 50,000 people and scoring. It is something you get addicted to."
Connor Wickham was supporting the PlayStation Schools' Cup National Finals. Visit: www.playstationschoolscup.comReuse content