After three underwhelming results and plenty of frustration along the way, all focus now turns to Sunderland’s clash with Wigan Athletic at the Stadium of Light this weekend.
Former League One sparring partners, the game is now a Championship fixture and is sure to be a feisty affair, not least because neither team is in the best of form right now and a win for either side would inject some much-needed momentum into their season.
Looking beyond the well-worn argument about ‘forced rivalries’ (something that I never quite got my head around during the League One years- I’ve never had an issue with any Wigan supporter and never will) this will be a game where the red and white connection runs through our opposition to an unusually strong degree.
The Latics have no fewer than four ex-Sunderland players on their books, in the shape of Max Power, James McClean, Nathan Broadhead and Charlie Wyke, all of whom are viewed with varying degrees of respect by our supporters.
For well-documented reasons, McClean has long been one of football’s resident bad boys and a villain in the eyes of many, but Power was arguably one of our more consistent performers in the third tier, and Broadhead became a genuine fan favourite during his spell on Wearside, with his decision to opt against a return being met with bemusement from many supporters.
As for Wyke?
Forget his contributions in a Sunderland shirt from 2018 to 2021 for a moment, because the very fact that the man will run out onto the Stadium of Light pitch this weekend is nothing short of miraculous.
It was in November 2021, not long after leaving for Wigan, that he suffered a cardiac arrest in training, and suddenly his life, not just his football career, was in the balance, to the horror of everyone.
Mercifully, he made a full recovery (documented by some wonderful pictures and videos on social media) and on Saturday, he scored for Wigan, albeit in defeat, against Cardiff. In a Sky Sports interview at the end of August, he expressed his thoughts on the battle he faced to resume his football career- inspired in no small part by the remarkable comeback made by Christian Eriksen.
Getting back on the pitch has made me feel better physically and mentally. It is the toughest battle I have ever been through, and I found an inner strength I didn’t think I had.
With that in mind, I really do hope that Wyke’s return to the Stadium of Light is met with nothing but respect from our supporters, and I genuinely believe that is exactly what will happen. Hopefully any lingering ill-feeling surrounding his exit has dissipated, and we can get behind our own team whilst simultaneously acknowledging his heartwarming return to the professional game.
Sunderland’s 2020/2021 season was a failure, but Wyke did everything he could to help us to achieve our aim, and despite the fact he was not as dynamic or as much of an all-round threat as his eventual replacement Ross Stewart, he upheld his end of the bargain and then some.
He was undoubtedly aided by an almost telepathic understanding with Aiden McGeady en-route to his eventual total, but thirty one goals are thirty one goals, regardless of how they’re scored. Remove his output from the ‘goals scored’ column for that season, and God only knows where we’d have finished. Wyke stood tall when others often wilted, and for that, he deserves respect.
Despite the fact that he decided to move on in the summer of 2021, and the usual unflattering comments about him abandoning us ‘for the money’, his story is one that goes beyond football, and that he is still playing professionally after almost losing his life is one of the feel-good stories of this season.
Regardless of whether he starts or is named on Wigan’s bench this Saturday, it is sure to be a big moment for Wyke as he returns to Sunderland.
As much as we all love the game and are eager to put one over on Leam Richardson’s side, some things are more important, and the good health and continued recovery of our former centre forward is certainly one of them.