After returning from a three-month injury lay-off, Charlie Wyke may have felt some pressure to make up for lost time at Sunderland.
The 26-year-old striker was unveiled as something of a marquee signing for the Black Cats back in the summer, after arriving from Bradford City for an undisclosed fee.
But things haven’t quite gone to plan for Wyke since his switch from Valley Parade to the Stadium of Light, after the 6 ft 2 striker sustained a detrimental knee ligament injury away at Burton on September 15.
While watching his team-mates push for promotion, Wyke has watched patiently from the sidelines, while Sunderland went on a 12-game unbeaten run in the league.
But rather than dwelling on what might have been, Wyke is looking ahead to the second half of the campaign, with the Black Cats fighting for a Championship return.
After making his long-awaited return against Bradford on Boxing Day, Wyke has started three first-team games for Jack Ross’ side, and scored his second Sunderland goal against Newcastle Under-21s in the Checkatrade Trophy on Tuesday night.
“This is the business end of the season now, and this is the best time to play football and hit form,” said Wyke following the 4-0 victory over the young Magpies.
“We’ve got big games coming up against teams that are in and around us, and hopefully we can keep winning games and picking up points. We need to keep doing well in the league.
“It’s been hard not playing, but hopefully it means I’ll be fit and fresh in the second half of the season when other players who have played a lot more are starting to get a bit tired.
“It’s a hard league and there’s a lot of games, especially with the cup games. I’ve obviously missed a lot of games in the first half of the season, but I’m over that now and hopefully now I can keep getting fitter the more games I play.
“Hopefully, I’ll be a lot fitter and feel a lot better than the players I’m playing against.”
Ross admitted last month he rushed Wyke back too soon following the striker’s arrival on Wearside.
The forward was still nursing a groin injury when he joined the Black Cats and missed the first few weeks of the season as a result.
But Wyke insists he feels much better this time around and is ready for the challenges ahead.
“I’m a lot more ready now. I think I did rush things back a bit the first time,” said the striker.
“It was frustrating joining the club being injured, and I was desperate to try to get myself back.
“I think in my head I told myself I was alright, but the knee definitely wasn’t and that collision just made it a lot worse. Now, I feel back to normal and hopefully I can kick on from here.
“When the team’s winning and you’re on the injury table or the injury bed, it’s not very nice. You’re thinking, ‘When am I going to get back playing’.
“I’ve worked really hard to get back where I am, and thankfully I’m there now. I just want that to continue.”
Wyke missed a couple of chances during Sunderland’s last league fixture against Charlton, but was relieved to get back among the goals against Newcastle’s youngster.
Moving forward, there’s no doubt Wyke offers something different to Sunderland’s top scorer this season, Josh Maja, but the former is enjoying the competition for places.
“When you play for clubs this size, you’re going to be competing for your place and every day is going to be hard work,” added Wyke.
“You have to prove yourself every day, you can’t rest on your laurels, and hopefully I’ll keep doing that.
“I’ve missed a few chances, but I think I’ve been doing well in the games that I’ve played, and hopefully that continues.
“It is a different style we can play now – if it’s not working passing it short, we can go a bit longer and try to get on the second balls.
“It gives other people more chances and more space in which to play. The most important thing is to keep playing well and keep scoring goals.
“I’ve been doing a lot of hard work outside the box, and the more games you play, the sharper you get.
“You get those little movements inside the box right, and that allows you to get ahead of defenders. The more games I play, the sharper I’ll be.”
Wyke has also enjoyed playing alongside Maja, and believes the pair can form a successful partnership.
“I’ve enjoyed playing with Josh. He gets about me with little flick ons and knock-downs,” said Wyke.
“He’s always there, and I think we already have a good understanding. Hopefully, the more games we play, the better it gets.
When asked if he prefers playing up front on his own or with a partner alongside him, Wyke added: “You can mix it up, it depends what game it is.”
“I like it when Josh is in and around me because obviously it gives us both a bit more space. Hopefully, we can keep working together, score goals and keep progressing in the league.”
With seemingly little to gain against Newcastle’s youngsters, Wyke believes his side dealt with the situation admirably, despite a frustrating first half which ended goalless.
“We had to come with a professional attitude and get the job done, and that’s what we did in the end,” said the striker.
“They came out and passed the ball about, and we tried to get about them. We weren’t really at our best in the first half, but in the second half we really took the game to them.
“Thankfully, we got a few goals and played well, and everything’s good.”
Despite the potentially awkward nature of the game, it was a fixture Wyke always wanted to play - in fact the forward would have played against just about anyone.
“I had a word with the gaffer and told him I want to play as much football as I can,” said Wyke.
“He had a word with me before the Newcastle game and said he wanted to play me for about 70 minutes. That was probably best for me.
“I’ve missed that many games, I want to play in as many games as I can. I’m going to be asking whether there are any Under-18 or Under-23 games I can play in!
“I want to play as many games as I can now. It was a strange game for the club, but we played well in the second half and got the job done. We can move on now and look forward.”