England U21s 2 Northern Ireland U21s 0: Wickham inspires 'perfect' Lions cubs

By Dominic King

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How appropriate. As the man who sealed England's Under-21s place at Euro 2013, it was only fitting Connor Wickham emerged again to bring the curtain down on a flawless 12 months.

This is the first time since 1991 England have enjoyed a blemish-free calendar year – this 2-0 success over Northern Ireland was their sixth win in six games – but while 2012 has given Stuart Pearce reason to be optimistic, it has tested the patience of their goalscorer.

Head boy: Wickham scores the opening goal of the game at Bloomfield Road

Head boy: Wickham scores the opening goal of the game at Bloomfield Road

Wickham, who has endured troubles with his fitness, has barely featured for Sunderland – he has played a paltry one minute for Martin O'Neill this season – and it is likely he will leave soon on loan to gain match practice.

For England, though, Wickham's stock is rising. His header on the stroke of half-time, which set the ball rolling on a comfortable success, was his third goal in four appearances following strikes against Norway and Serbia. Substitute Benik Afobe sealed the win with a late penalty.

Bloody mess: The goalscorer returned to the pitch with four stitches for a head wound

Bloody mess: The goalscorer returned to the pitch with four stitches for a head wound

Bloody mess: The goalscorer returned to the pitch with four stitches for a head wound

Of all those who featured last night at Bloomfield Road, Wickham staked the most impressive claim to be included when Euro 2013 begins in Israel next June.

England have not been flush with goals recently, so Wickham's form will be a source of comfort for Pearce.

'Connor was excellent,' said England's head coach. 'He held the ball up well, his energy levels were high. He pressed from the front and he can benefit from this over the next few months. I have seen his demeanour around the place and he looks like he is enjoying himself.'

All smiles: Wickham wheels away in celebration after scoring the opener for Pearce's side

All smiles: Wickham wheels away in celebration after scoring the opener for Pearce's side

Wickham troubled Northern Ireland all game. He almost scored on 17 minutes when Liverpool left-back Jack Robinson disposed Lee Hodson but the 19-year-old rattled the crossbar from eight yards.     

He went close again shortly after when connecting with a free-kick from captain Jordan Henderson but, this time, Cliftonville goalkeeper Conor Devlin was equal to the task, turning his effort around the post. Devlin kept Northern Ireland in the game on 39 minutes, plunging to his left to keep out a drive from the lively Thomas Ince, but he had no answer to what followed in the final act of the half.

Spot on: Afobe completed the scoring with a penalty after he was hauled down by Devlin

Spot on: Afobe completed the scoring with a penalty after he was hauled down by Devlin

Spot on: Afobe completed the scoring with a penalty after he was hauled down by Devlin

Having just returned to the field after getting four stitches in a head wound, Wickham got the reward his effort deserved when glancing in another Henderson free-kick. The second half was disrupted by a series of substitutions but Afobe completed the scoring when converting from 12 yards after he had been brought down by Devlin.

'I was very pleased with performance,' said Pearce. 'We kept a clean sheet and we won the game. It was beyond my expectations.'

 
 

The comments below have not been moderated.

Why not Andrew? They will actually be able to play and enjoy there football, concerntrate on skill and technique instead of the parents shouting 'boot it out or boot it long' just to make sure 10 year olds win a game! They will learn about winning as they get older. We havnt done anything with our old ways apart from 66, so we need a change to our youth set ups. Just my opinion though.

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No chance of any improvement going forward if the following extract from the FA Laws being introduced in season 2014/15 are anything to go by:- "Under 11s are not permitted to play in leagues where results are collected and placed in a league format or winner trophies presented. This is deemed to be detrimental to the development of the player and the game"

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It really worries me that we have a coach like Stewart Pearce bringing through our youth players. Thank god they don't meet up with him too often.

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he looks like he was shot by a sniper come on no need to dive

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Come on Mick sign him on loan for Ipswich, as the buffoon at Sunderland is ruining his career, while I admit it must be hard to break into a team who's doing well and the forwards are scoring so many goals this year!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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