Premier League

Sunderland midfielder Craig Gardner feels Connor Wickham is coming of age

Connor Wickham: Starting to fulfil his potential according to Craig Gardner

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Sunderland midfielder Craig Gardner believes striker Connor Wickham is starting to come of age and needs to start 'bullying' opposition defenders.

The 19-year-old played a pivotal role coming off the bench in helping the Black Cats recover a 2-0 deficit to force an FA Cup third-round replay against Bolton.

Within three minutes of arriving the striker fired home from close range and he continued to look a threat after Gardner had smashed home the equaliser from long range.

"Connor is coming of age now," said Gardner of the 6ft 2ins, 14-stone front man.

"He is getting mentally stronger and he knows where the net is.

"He is an absolute animal and he bullies people and that is what he needs to do because he has a great future ahead of him."

The draw at the Reebok Stadium prevented a third successive defeat for Sunderland.

With their results in the Premier League being more down than up this season Gardner admits their resilience has got them through again.

And he credited manager Martin O'Neill with inspiring the players.

"Bolton went 1-0 up through one of our errors and when they went 2-0 up you thought 'Flipping hell'," he added.

"But I keep going on about the spirit in the camp - and I'm probably boring people - but it's really important to have."

He added: "At half-time we said 'There's 5,000 fans out there, let's give them something to go away with' and it is massively important we are in that hat.

"Things happen in cups which don't normally happen in the league but it's okay because we're still in there.

"We battled and battled and in the end we could have won it comfortably.

"Everyone is behind each other and you could see the gaffer loves the cup and he brings that to the players - everyone loves the cup.

"It comes from the top, the gaffer. He is non-stop, he's always jumping around shouting.

"All you have to do is look at the touchline and see him jumping up and down and it makes you want to dig deep.

"I have been with him for seven or eight years now, having also been at Villa with him, and he is a top-class manager, he is brilliant."