Wickham is a “Jewell” in the making

CONNOR Wickham and Paul Jewell - a match made in heaven?

CONNOR Wickham and Paul Jewell - a match made in heaven?

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that wonder-kid Wickham is suddenly starting to flourish, under new Ipswich Town boss Jewell.

The 17-year-old had his injury problems under previous boss, Roy Keane, but he was never given a sustained opportunity to prove what he is clearly capable of achieving at this level, and beyond.

The stark fact is that Wickham did not score a goal under Keane this season. By contrast, he has already plundered five goals in Jewell’s first six league games at the helm.

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The big, burly attacker, a nightmare vision for all defenders, is no longer consigned to a role as a bit-part player in Town’s set-up. He is now a regular in the starting XI, and I can’t see that situation changing any-time soon.

Keane was always reluctant to over-play Wickham, but perhaps the Irishman was over-protective of his raw teenage talent? The England man spent most of his time twiddling his thumbs on the bench, waiting to come on, instead of being thrown straight in at the deep end by a cautious Keane.

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Furthermore, Keane’s management style, which was certainly not hands-on, probably didn’t bring the best out of Wickham in the months leading up to the eventual change on the Portman Road hot-seat.

Keane, by his own admission, is not a manager renowned for putting his arm around a player, or exchanging too much in the way of dialogue. He prefers to take a back seat and make a considered opinion from a distance.

However, some players respond better to a pat-on-the-back, or a few words of encouragement, especially the younger and more inexperienced members of the squad.

Lee Martin admitted as much last month, when speaking on the eve of Town’s 3-2 home victory over Doncaster.

Winger Martin, himself rejuvenated under new boss Jewell, following his loan stint at Charlton, insisted that he responded best to the personal touch. Hence his return to form both under then-Addicks boss Phil Parkinson, and more recently Jewell.

Wickham is perhaps not dissimilar to Martin, in this respect.

True, Town’s giant striker did miss the start of this campaign with an ankle injury, sustained in pre-season, and he also sat out the best part of a month up to Christmas with a thigh problem, but you felt that he was never able to break the shackles under Keane, and so play himself back into form.

The statistics speak for themselves. Under Keane this term, Wickham failed to score in 18 senior appearances, and in fact started just four times.

Under Jewell, though, he has started each of Town’s six league games, lasting the full 90 minutes on each occasion. He also played the full 90 minutes in both Carling Cup semi-final ties against Arsenal.

Having finally scored his first goal of the season, as late as January 22, with a header in the 3-2 home win over Doncaster, he has now managed five-in-five.

The unforgettable solo goal against Sheffield United, when he ran half the length of the pitch to slot home Town’s third in a 3-0 win, was followed by a hat-trick on Tuesday night in the 6-0 demolition of hosts Doncaster.

It was the first hat-trick of his career, and it certainly won’t be his last!

Of course Rovers will be delighted to see the back of Wickham, for at another season, but future opponents are probably quaking in their boots at the prospect of trying to nullify the threat of an on-fire Wickham.

Remarkably, of course, Jewell isn’t even playing Wickham in his natural position as a centre-forward, which is perhaps a master-stroke in itself.

Under Keane, he operated either as a lone striker or in a two-pronged strike-force.

But under Jewell, due to the constraints of the squad - Jewell believes that the players at his disposal are best-suited to a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 formation - Wickham has been playing wide on the left.

It hasn’t cramped his style. In fact, if anything he has relished the chance to shine on the left, and made him more determined to have an impact on games from that wider position.

He is still in the thick of the action, and yet doesn’t have the burden of trying to carry an attack on his own back, or cope with the pressures of leading from the front. He also seems to enjoy a greater freedom from nagging centre-halves.

As Jewell suggests, Wickham’s left-wing role is only temporary. He will go on to play the bulk of his career as centre-forward.

But the important fact is that the youngster is on the pitch, doing what he does best - beating opponents and scoring goals.

If Keane was still Town’s manager, it is very doubtful that Wickham would have started the last 10 games on the spin.

More likely, he would have been on the bench or just restricted to a few outings.

Of course Wickham did enjoy a purple patch under Keane at the back-end of last season, when scoring four goals during the final two months.

But I don’t think, under Keane, he would still have been on the pitch on Tuesday night, ready to win the penalty and then coolly convert it to complete his hat-trick in the 90th minute.

Jewell has much to thank for Wickham; but then Wickham has much to thank for Jewell.

It is indeed a match made in heaven.

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