Date: 29th June 2011 at 4:52pm
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As a well-known cyborg once said to a lad named Connor, ‘Judgment Day is inevitable’. So, it seems, was Connor Wickham’s departure from Ipswich Town.

There was always a sense that Wickham’s future at Portman Road was based on a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ he would move on. So much had the kid impressed from the moment he stepped onto the pitch as a 16-year-old against Doncaster Rovers in April 2009 that pundits, managers and the like were already dressing him up in Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool shirts – not to mention England.

Certainly there is much evidence to suggest that Wickham could be plying his trade with many a lofty club in years to come. In two seasons at Ipswich, the teenager showed maturity and ability more fitting of his height than his age. The 6ft 3in striker started to creep into the first team under Roy Keane’s management and quickly showed an eye for goal. A brace in his first ever League Cup tie against Shrewsbury got him off the mark, and though it was spring before he found the net again, Wickham finished the 2009/10 season in style with 4 goals in 9 appearances, including a memorable strike at Derby County just five days after his 17th birthday where he showed composure far beyond his years.

Talk was already rife in summer 2010 that Wickham could be on his way to the Premier League, but when a pre-season injury left him on the sidelines until the autumn, it seemed that Ipswich would be given a little longer to enjoy his talents. Despite not scoring his first goal of the season until January 2011, the Hereford-born striker made up for lost time with an impressive tally of 9 league goals in the second half of the campaign, including a jawdropping solo goal against Sheffield United as well as his first senior hat-trick at Doncaster; performances which earned him the Championship Apprentice and Football League Player of the Year awards.

Achievements in club football were accompanied by success at international level too; Wickham made himself the hero of the England U17 side in their European Championship winning campaign of 2010, and further caps rose him through the ranks of the national team until reaching the gateway of the senior England squad with the U21s this year.

All of which did not escape the attentions of his prospective suitors. Depending on which papers you might have read, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur and even Italian giants Juventus were all in the running for the teenage hotshot at one point or another. Ultimately however, destiny has today handed Wickham a place at Sunderland – ironically following in the footsteps of the last England international to leave Ipswich, Darren Bent.

The move is an interesting one for the 18-year-old. Whether any alternative offers had ever actually been put on the table is difficult to say, but the Stadium of Light did not seem the most obvious destination for Wickham in his long-awaited rise to Premier League stardom. Indeed, for the boyhood Liverpool fan, a switch to the Reds looked far more likely.

However, Kenny Dalglish’s loss could be Steve Bruce’s gain, as well as Wickham’s. Whilst he would have faced a battle to outshine the likes of fellow England starlet Andy Carroll on Merseyside, Wickham could find first team football more forthcoming on Wearside, with Sunderland evidently prepared to make the gamble on his potential using much of the cash they received from sending Jordan Henderson to Anfield.

Sunderland are getting far more than just a budding goalscorer though. Paul Jewell’s willingness to utilise Wickham as a left-midfielder for Town revealed further aspects of his game; not only his power in the air and creativity on the wing, but also a readiness to come back and assist the defence before sending play forward again. Such a trait has done no harm in justifying the rather weighty ‘next Wayne Rooney’ tag so frequently placed on the youngster’s shoulders.

Even so, the move looks more like a long-term investment than a quick fix for the Black Cats. Regular observers of Wickham in his time at Portman Road will no doubt be aware that he is far from the finished product – even if he is pretty far along the production line – and an immediate start to Premier League life looks rather optimistic. Connor’s day will come – it is inevitable – but there is no doubt that patience will have to be shown on both sides.

So where does this leave Ipswich? For all the qualities that Wickham will offer to Sunderland throughout the pitch, those qualities are in turn being taken away from Ipswich. The Blues have been privileged over the past few years to have owned and nurtured one of the most exciting young players in England, but it is precisely that status that ensured Town would never be able to keep hold of Wickham. Indeed, it may be some time before the academy produces another graduate of such calibre.

Many Town fans will no doubt be disappointed about the loss of Wickham, but from the very beginning, there has been an obvious silver lining. Save for wages and the expenditure of educating him through his footballing infancy, Town had not shed a penny to acquire Wickham’s services, yet they have now sold the teenager for a club record £8.1 million potentially rising to £12 million – not to mention the likelihood of an additional sell-on clause. As such, the investment in Wickham’s future is now set to become a substantial investment into building the club’s future in his absence.

A busy summer had already been promised by Blues boss Jewell after the major clearout of playing staff resulting from last season’s contract saga. Investment had already taken place with £1.5 million spent on acquiring the services of Michael Chopra as well as a free transfer for Nathan Ellington – the moves which arguably had already oiled the wheels for Wickham to roll out of East Anglia, even if the club would never admit such a plan.

Indeed, though Ellington’s signing may take time to convince, the arrival of Chopra arguably changed the dynamic surrounding the future of Ipswich. Whereas hopes might have previously been at least partly pinned on developing Wickham into a top scorer, the Blues now had an established Championship hotshot in their ranks. As such, the necessity of continuing to gamble on Wickham’s potential was thereby removed, allowing Jewell the luxury of choosing whether or not to cash in on the starlet. Keeping Wickham would have given Town’s strikeforce a further edge, but with the new options, Ipswich fans could feel reassured that the club would be able to cope whether or not the England international was still around by the start of the new season.

Of more importance however is how Wickham’s sale will affect the rest of the Ipswich squad, especially in midfield and defence. Further additions to these areas have always been a necessity and chairman Marcus Evans had already looked willing enough to back Jewell in the marketplace. Yet, where there might previously have been restrictions on how far he was willing to gamble – and thereby which players Town could afford – the windfall provided by Sunderland now minimises Evans’ risk.

It remains to be seen how much of the cash will be made available and indeed how far it will stretch, but it is likely to open doors for Jewell. New swoops for the likes of Billy Sharp, James Coppinger or even Jimmy Bullard might be a renewed possibilty, and there would most likely be plenty left over for reinforcements in as many positions as required.

The circumstances are not that different to when the Blues cashed in on another top young talent in 1999. The sale of 20-year-old Kieron Dyer for £6 million – coincidentally the record broken by Wickham’s deal – helped to fund numerous influential additions to George Burley’s squad, with the likes of Marcus Stewart, Jermaine Wright and Martijn Reuser going on to play their part in the Blues’ famous promotion to the Premier League in 2000. Time will tell if a repeat is on the cards, but if Wickham is to be the sacrifice for such a dream, perhaps it will all be worthwhile in the end.

And so it’s best wishes to Connor for what could be the start of his career at the very top of the game. But maybe now, with any luck, Ipswich won’t be too far behind him.

By Darren Campbell

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