Ipswich boss Roy Keane knows a thing or two about top class strikers. During his Manchester United days, Keane played alongside Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona and Andy Cole – not to mention Dwight Yorke, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney. Needless to say, he saw some of the deadliest finishers to ever grace the Premier League. Those front men all had different strengths, but share the common trait of finding the net when it matters most.

So when Keane sings the praises of his young striker Connor Wickham, it is an opinion worth listening to. The 17-year-old has made a fine start at Portman Road and is already a firm fan favourite.

The 2009/10 season was disastrous for Keane and his players. Expectations were sky high when the Irishman’s appointment was announced, yet from the first day of the season – a defeat at Coventry – Ipswich were off the pace. The embarrassment of relegation was ultimately avoided, but there was little to smile about.

This year, everything is looking rosier – and Wickham is playing an important role in the revival. Keane has been busy rebuilding his squad and surrounding himself with reliable, familiar faces – like Grant Leadbitter and Carlos Edwards from his Sunderland days – but in the rush to cash in assets to fund new signings, Wickham’s name never entered discussions.

There has certainly been interest, with reports linking Tottenham, Arsenal and Newcastle amongst others with the striker, who has also impressed for the England Under-17 squad. Figures as high as £10M have been mentioned. But Ipswich have turned the suitors away, at least for now. Wickham has come a long way since entering the Ipswich youth system, and Keane is determined to nurture the youngster and pass on the key lessons he learned from Cantona, Solskjaer and company. He has high hopes for Wickham, alongside the club’s other front men Jason Scotland and Tamas Priskin.

Wickham is nothing if not enthusiastic. Everything about his style of play points to a love for the game. He has wasted little time tormenting defences with his clever runs and relentless work-rate. He takes his role seriously as the first line of defence and his powerful build allows Ipswich to adopt a more direct approach.

The striker is ideally suited to the sometimes rugged nature of Championship football and it is easy to forget that he is just 17 years of age and will not turn 18 until March. Keane has been watchful over Wickham’s playing time, at times starting the youngster, at times bringing him off the bench.

Ipswich’s solid form has put them among the pace setters in the Championship. With stiff competition throughout the league, Keane would no doubt be delighted to finish in a playoff spot and so far his players have looked capable of achieving that target.

One particular Wickham performance stands out from this season thus far. At home to Cardiff, who have also laid down a marker in the opening months of the campaign, Keane threw his big number 9 into the fray – and Wickham terrorised the Cardiff defence all afternoon. How he did not score that day remains a mystery, but he certainly made his presence felt. Every time he ran with the ball it took two or three Cardiff defenders to avert the danger.

Keane is not a man who throws praise around like confetti. Kind words are always earned. So Wickham will have taken great heart from the Irishman’s positive comments this season. After the Cardiff game, the Ipswich boss said: ‘He showed a good work-rate and presence. Top people have a presence. Connor’s got a bit of everything.’ However, the Irishman is also eager to play down the hype and keep the youngster grounded.

Fellow striker Scotland likes what he is seeing from Wickham. ‘When I was first told he was just 17, I couldn’t believe it, I really couldn’t,’ he admitted. ‘In training, no one here wants to play against him. They all want him on their side, myself included. He puts himself about that much. Connor has got great skills all round.’

The Championship race for promotion is always fiercely contested and Keane will be taking nothing for granted at this early stage. He has been in the game too long now to forget how rocky things can be at times over a long season. But the Premier League is once again on the minds of the Ipswich fans, particularly given the struggles of predicted-contenders Middlesbrough, Hull and Nottingham Forest.

Wickham will not be asked to carry an unrealistic load but, if the Tractor Boys are to stay in the hunt, they will need his fresh legs and goalscoring instincts in the months ahead.