With Charlie Wyke misfiring in his comeback games and Josh Maja’s agent conspiring in his breakthrough season, Sunderland find themselves risking a repeat of last January’s transfer action. That is, the top scorer disappears and what’s left is a big lad who should be smashing but is out of sorts.
In comparing Josh Maja to Lewis Grabban and Charlie Wyke to Ashley Fletcher, it’s doing both current members of the squad a disservice. Regardless, Sunderland need goals in the team to kick on and with goalscoring form stuck at 1 every 90 minutes, it feels worrying.
Too much has already been written about the precocious Maja, so what about Wyke - it’s unsettling that Wyke might be unsettling fans this fast since his return to action.
It was something that was tangible at the Stadium of Light during the hard-fought contest with Luton Town. I’m talking about the old fella behind me who shouted: “He cannit jump, man!” lots of times at no-one until he was hoarse. There were other grumblers.
Fans should remember that Wyke is returning from back-to-back injuries. The collision with Burton goalie, Dimitar Evtimov, in September was so ugly the club can perhaps count itself lucky to see its headline summer signing play again this season.
So although physically ideal for League One and Sunderland’s side, physically in terms of fitness, it’s obvious Wyke is not quite there. The problem for Sunderland’s number 9 is the Maja situation, the club’s static position in the table, and its jittery form, have all surfaced at once.
The pressure is building. Positively building. But it’s still an anxious, wanting pressure.
As a result, our lone striker against Luton could be forgiven if he felt a bit lonely from the amount negative attention he received after 34,000 left bemoaning the lack of a second goal. The one that would ease the Maja rubbish, shift the club into second and avoid another draw.
And don’t get me wrong, Wyke needs to score. It’s his job, so he needs to take responsibility for that and get it done. But briefly, instead of the what-ifs now, think of the what-was back in January 2018.
It’s hardly groundhog transfer window but the similarities are worth noting, as is what transpired. Certainly when the club are guaranteeing that a centre forward will be brought in, maybe two, depending on plot twists.
At the close of the January transfer window last season, Sunderland fans read all about their new on-loan striker, Ashley Fletcher, in the local reports.
The Chronicle’s Dominic Shaw and Craig Johns, reported: “A deal that completely makes sense and suits everyone involved.” Great. But that at Boro, Fletcher, “...really struggled to make an impact.”
And how: “He is desperate for regular game time and to be somewhere he will be the main man; somewhere he will be made to feel important again.” Fletcher scored twice in 16 appearances for Sunderland. One of those goals came against Wolves in the final game of the season.
In some way, Fletcher’s efforts could be seen as an embodiment of the fragility of the final moments of Sunderland AFC under Ellis Short.
His appearances in Netflix’s Sunderland ‘Til I Die are some of the most fascinating to watch, too - the smiles from signing, and then the shock on his face when Martin Bain shouts “f**k” and slams his office door at the Rodwell news. It tees up what follows perfectly.
As the episodes spin by and the inevitable comes. Fletcher, as he did at Boro and as was reported, struggles to make an impact when the club really need their striker to make an impact. When they need their striker to step up and release the pressure from building and building.
The gloom grows, Fletcher misses a sitter against a team I can’t remember and his body language from that point tells you everything they need to know. Slumped, missing, miserable. So much so that Lee Cattermole’s back slapping plea of “Get behind him!” becomes particularly raw.
The big lad up front needed a big hug. For the fans, it just wasn’t the time to be giving out second chances. It was the time they really needed the players to be taking theirs.
And so fast-forward 12 months. New everything. Almost - Catts is the same.
This time our big lad up front, Charlie Wyke, has well and truly been there and got the trophy. He is the real deal at this level so it really should happen for him. Meanwhile manager, Jack Ross, preaches to stay positive and he knows what needs to be done.
Yesterday, he reflected on the goalscoring situation, with:
We’re the only team in England that have scored in every league game this season. So, that is an incredible statistic and a fantastic record.
We loathe to be too critical of what we’ve done in forward areas this season when you look at that record. However, this is a critical point of the season in terms of what you’re able to put in place for the second half of it.
Critical, definitely. Clinical… Wyke and whoever his partner is have to be if Sunderland are to succeed in the second half of the season.