THIS time last year, Charlie Wyke was being heralded as the player that had Sunderland’s promotion prospects in his hands. Fresh from his summer move from Bradford City, and approaching full fitness as he recovered from a knee injury, plenty of observers identified the 26-year-old striker as the Black Cats’ key performer. Suffice to say things didn’t really turn out as planned.

Wyke managed just four goals in 14 league starts as a succession of niggling injuries wrecked his first season on Wearside, and by the time the campaign ended in the disappointment of play-off final defeat to Charlton Athletic, the Teessider had fallen behind January signing Will Grigg in the attacking pecking order.

This summer, Marc McNulty arrived on a season-long loan from Reading to further swell Sunderland’s forward ranks, leaving Wyke at risk of becoming the Black Cats’ forgotten man.

With McNulty and Grigg starting alongside each other on the opening weekend against Oxford, Wyke was not involved in either of Sunderland’s opening two matches. He scored after coming off the bench at Accrington though, and with McNulty unavailable for tonight’s trip to Rochdale after damaging his hamstrings in last weekend’s 2-1 win over Portsmouth, he will hope to make his first start of the season at Spotland.

While a number of Sunderland’s forward players are effectively interchangeable in terms of their preferred playing style, Wyke’s muscularity and aerial prowess enable him to stand apart. Jack Ross would bridle at any suggestion of being a ‘long-ball manager’, but even the Sunderland boss concedes there are times at League One level when Wyke’s unique skills are required.

“We don’t really have an alternative to Charlie in terms of what he can do,” said Ross, who expects McNulty to be sidelined for up to a fortnight. “Nobody else really gives us the same attributes that he can provide.

“Saturday was probably a case in point – without him in the side, it was difficult at times if we were looking to play longer. We didn’t really have that target until he came on, whereas in the latter part of the game, he gave us that.

“You need that at times in this league. With the best will in the world, there will be times where you need that. That’s why the vast majority of the teams in this league, if not all of them, have a player with that presence in their squad.

“Having him in the squad helps, and having him fit, healthy and bang at it is a massive help. It will definitely help over the course of the season, and I’m excited about where he’s at at the moment because we always thought he would be a good player here and help us.”

Last summer, Wyke missed the vast majority of the pre-season period after injuring his knee in a friendly while playing for Bradford. This time around, while he picked up a minor knock in Portugal, he was able to participate in the vast majority of training sessions, something Ross feels will be absolutely crucial as the season progresses.

“He did 90 or 95 per cent of pre-season and was only ruled out with a niggle in Portugal right towards the end,” he said. “Because of that, he’s looked lean, fit and sharp, and I think he showed that towards the end of Accrington game and in the majority of the second half against Portsmouth.

“I think he feels in a better place mentally because of that. He wants to make an impact because last season was frustrating for him for a number of different reasons. It’s pleasing for me to see him in that frame of mind.”

Sunderland (probable, 4-4-2): J McLaughlin; O’Nien, Willis, Ozturk, C McLaughlin; Leadbitter, Power; Gooch, Maguire, McGeady; Wyke.