WHERE would Sunderland be without Charlie Wyke? The Black Cats’ promotion push has gathered pace significantly in the last month or so, and it is hardly a coincidence that their best run of the season has been accompanied by their leading goalscorer’s best run of form in a red-and-white shirt.

Last night’s header, which settled a scrappy encounter with a Swindon Town side who had frustrated their opponents for more than an hour, took Wyke to 19 league goals for the season, 14 of which have been scored since Christmas.

Lee Johnson’s appointment seems to have sparked the Teessider into life, and given the lack of goalscoring threat from the majority of those around him, it is just as well that Wyke has rediscovered his shooting boots. If he maintains his current form to the end of the season, a plae in the top two might not be out of reach.

He provided the crucial moment of last night’s game, glancing home Chris Maguire’s free-kick to ensure Sunderland were not left to rue their inability to turn what was a complete dominance of possession into a flurry of goalscoring chances.

Having been frustrated by the massed ranks of the Swindon ranks for 70 minutes, the hosts were able to breathe a huge sigh of relief when Wyke broke the deadlock. They were gasping rather more frenetically when Swindon midfielder Scott Twine rattled the crossbar with a long-range free-kick in stoppage time, but ultimately the Wearsiders deserved their win. With Lincoln and Portsmouth both losing, the result has lifted the Black Cats to fourth in the table, five points adrift of the automatic-promotion positions.

Their surge back into contention for a top-two finish has been all the more impressive given the defensive problems Johnson has had to contend with. As if the absence of all three of his first-choice centre-halves was not bad enough, with Bailey Wright, Jordan Willis and Tom Flanagan all currently sidelined, Johnson was also forced to scratch Conor McLaughlin from his squad list last night.

With McLaughlin having joined the absentee ranks, three members of Sunderland’s back five were midfielders by trade, with two of them – Max Power and Luke O’Nien – lining up on either side of Dion Sanderson at centre-half. Not, however, that Power and O’Nien are the type to let anyone down.

They certainly filled in effectively enough last night, tucking in to support Sanderson defensively when required and striding out purposefully to feed those in front of them when the opportunity allowed.

Admittedly, it helped that Swindon were anything but ambitious, with the visitors regularly leaving veteran striker Brett Pitman up front on his own and pulling their remaining nine outfield players back into their own half. Numerically, at least, Sunderland’s three centre-halves tended to find themselves underemployed.

The challenge was always going to be breaking down the Robins’ well-drilled defence, and for all that they dominated possession for the vast majority of the evening, the Black Cats struggled badly when it came to carving out clear-cut chances.

Swindon goalkeeper Connal Trueman only joined the club on Monday, signing on an emergency loan from Birmingham City to become the Robins’ sixth shot-stopper of an injury-ravaged season, but the 24-year-old could hardly have asked for an easier introduction to his new employers.

He was not required to make a single save in the opening 45 minutes, with a succession of Sunderland attacks breaking down long before they reached the 18-yard box.

Carl Winchester dragged an early long-range effort wide of the post, while Jordan Jones saw a shot deflected over after making space in the penalty area, but Sunderland’s only real chance of the first half came as the result of some direct running from right wing-back Lynden Gooch in the 18th minute.

The American burst towards the byline as he broke into the Swindon box, but while Wyke met his low driven cross at the front post, the striker’s first-time strike whistled wide of the upright.

That was pretty much that in terms of goalscoring opportunities before the break, with Jones tending to run down blind alleys and Aiden McGeady’s delivery, particularly from set-pieces, leaving a fair bit to be desired.

The lack of pace in Sunderland’s frontline was once again apparent, with Swindon’s defenders only ever having to worry about what was going on in front of them. Despite a succession of arrivals in various transfer windows, the Black Cats still do not have a striker capable of bursting in behind.

Swindon’s first-half threat was limited to two long-range free-kicks from Twine, one of which had Lee Burge scrambling to his right to keep the ball out, but while he would have been satisfied with his side’s defensive solidity before the break, Johnson would have been frustrated at the lack of attacking incision.

His response was to change shape at the interval, switching to a flat back four with Power at right-back and moving Gooch from wing-back to a ‘number ten’ role playing in the pocket behind Wyke.

The change initially did little to alter the general pattern of play, with Swindon’s rigid defensive shape still frustrating Sunderland’s attacking efforts, although the hosts did at least record their first effort on target shortly before the hour mark.

Gooch let fly from 22 yards after cutting in from the right flank, but Trueman got down to his left to turn the ball around the post.

That proved to be Gooch’s final act as he twinged a muscle on his next break into the box, forcing his replacement as part of a double substitution that also saw Jones depart. Maguire, Sunderland’s stoppage-time hero at Crewe, was accompanied onto the field by Aiden O’Brien, and while the former did not reprise his goalscoring exploits from Gresty Road, he was nevertheless integral to the hosts taking the lead with 20 minutes left.

Taking over free-kick duties from McGeady, Maguire delivered a teasing ball into the area from the right touchline. Wyke rarely needs a second invitation to ease in front of his marker when the ball is delivered into the box, and having muscled his way into the perfect position to meet Maguire’s cross, the striker glanced a deft headed finish into the bottom corner. It was Wyke’s seventh goal in the last six games, six of which have been headers. The only surprise last night was that it was Maguire rather than McGeady claiming the assist.

Unsurprisingly, the concession of the opening goal forced Swindon to become more adventurous, and having been a bystander right up to Wyke’s strike, Burge was forced to make a crucial save within three minutes of Sunderland taking the lead.

Twine’s through ball released Pitman into the left of the box, but Burge was alert to the danger and having raced from his goalline, the Black Cats’ goalkeeper was able to keep out his opponent’s low shot.

That looked like being that, but things almost changed in stoppage time. Twine drilled in a free-kick from 25 yards, but while his effort beat Burge, the ball rebounded to safety after cannoning off the crossbar.