Charlie Wyke opens up on his stunning Sunderland form, Lee Johnson's impact and Papa John's Trophy final
It seems like a lot longer than seven months ago.
Sunderland's Papa John's Trophy campaign began with a brace from Charlie Wyke but strange as it seems now, his inclusion in that side was a sign that his place in the regular XI was anything but certain.
Wyke had led the line with regularity for Phil Parkinson in the previous season but at the start of this one, competition for places was fierce and pre-season had been indifferent.
This Sunday, Wyke will be the first name on the teamsheet.
He has been the catalyst for Sunderland's promotion push, and an integral part of their run to this final.
In 2021 he has been one of the form strikers in Europe. That's not hyperbole, just a simple assertion of a statistical fact.
Wyke warmed up for the final with another vital goal against Portsmouth and we are reaching the stage now where it feels someone is pressing Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V.
An excellent delivery into the POMO, and an emphatic Wyke finish: the absolute bedrock of Sunderland's recent success.
So what's the secret?
Wyke himself modestly attributes it to the service he is now regularly receiving.
"The confidence is high in the group and I know that if I make those runs, the balls are going to come in from those wide areas," he said.
"Geads, Jordan, or whoever else is playing in those positions.
"The wide play and delivery has been fantastic, so long may that continue.
"It's not just me who has that confidence, it's us as a team. Everyone is playing well and when lads are coming into the team, "they're producing as well.
"We've got a great squad and you can see the confidence from that."
Speak to Wyke even for a short time and the enjoyment he is drawing from playing in Lee Johnson's style is obvious.
Take a look back at that first goal against Aston Villa U21s, all the way back in September.
This time it's Josh Scowen with an excellent corner to the front post, where Wyke easily has the beating of his marker to head home.
The main change between then and now is that the consistency and regularity with which Sunderland are finding those areas has improved.
The reintegration of Aiden McGeady has unquestionably been a massive factor in Wyke's form, while Johnson's decisions to push Jack Diamond into his more natural wing role and recruit Jordan Jones in January have been key.
Wyke, too, is playing with a poise and confidence that has taken his all-round game to the next level.
Speaking last month, Johnson spoke of how he had been aware that confidence had been an issue with Wyke since he arrived at the club, and that the pitfalls of social media had at times taken their toll.
Johnson urged him to treat his football 'like a business'. The Head Coach is a big believer that football is a numbers game and it's a message Wyke has signed up to with relish.
His goal tally speaks for itself, but his form is as much about the aggression in his press, the ball recoveries and the way he constantly provides an outlet for his side by running the channel.
"Confidence is a part of it, definitely," Johnson said then.
"My conversations with Charlie have been about framing things in a different way and to think differently, to see his performance and his body as a bit more of a business in his mind.
"Football doesn't define you as a man and you've got to make sure you're a good human, a good dad to your boy. That all plays its part.
"Charlie's mindset has been absolutely fantastic since I've been here and I've really enjoyed working with him.
"He's really enjoying the fruits of the effort he's put in to really concentrating on the psychological elements of his game."
If Sunderland's more threatening attacking play is the obvious factor in a quite exceptional record of 26 goals from 39 games, then this unseen work has been just as important.
"I've had some great chats with the manager," Wyke said.
"He's been great with me.
"When he first came in I had that little injury and didn't play his first game but he pulled me in as he hadn't had that chance to speak to me.
"We've had some really good chats, he's been great and I love the way we're playing at the minute."
In a recent home game, Wyke looked just for a moment as if he might have picked up a knock.
The collective intake of breath in front rooms across Wearside summed up his quite stunning season perfectly.
Sunderland’s season has now reached its defining weeks and it’s hard to make a case for any player being as important as Wyke.
The striker has lost three times at Wembley and so knows better than anyone how significant bringing an end to Sunderland’s wretched record at the national stadium would be.
Debate will inevitably continue as to the competition’s merits but for Wyke and the rest of the Sunderland squad, the message is absolutely clear.
“We've said from the start of the competition that we want to win it,” he said.
“It's big for us. We know about the record at Wembley and we're there to put that right.
“We know the fans will be at home watching, we wish they could be there with us but we know that it is still a big occasion and we want to produce a performance for them.”
When Tranmere Rovers go through their pre-match analysis, there will no doubt be one message clearer than any other: Don’t leave Charlie Wyke free in the box.
Recent weeks have shown that is easier said than done.