It was January 2015 and Keith Curle was facing a tough decision.
His Carlisle United side were staring relegation from League Two down the barrel, and Curle’s transfer business was going to prove key in any potential escape.
Rather than panic buy, the former England international took a more calculated approach. He spent the club’s modest transfer budget on young Middlesbrough striker Charlie Wyke, a player he had extensively monitored during his time in the dugout.
While some fans raised eyebrows at the purchase, Curle knew he had a player on his hands.
And so it proved, with the forward netting 39 times in just under two years at Brunton Park, with six strikes in his debut campaign helping the Cumbrians to safety.
But the form was no surprise to the then–Carlisle boss, who was always confident Wyke would deliver.
“Whichever level I went to, if I had the opportunity, I would sign Charlie Wyke,” admitted Curle, speaking exclusively to the Echo.
“That’s League One, Championship, Premier League – the kid will score goals.
“If you go and play him in the Premier League now, Charlie Wyke will go and score goals.
“People will go and watch him and they will say that there will be things where he won’t tick a box to be a Premier League striker, but the kid is always a goal threat.”
Curle – now managing Northampton Town in the fourth tier – is keen to reiterate that he feels Wyke has Premier League quality. Indeed, he has such confidence in Wyke’s ability that he recommended the frontman to Neil Warnock at Cardiff City before he sealed a switch to Wearside.
But Sunderland fans could be forgiven for not having the same faith in the 26–year–old’s talent. The striker has netted just twice since his arrival from Bradford City and was guilty of missing some gilt–edged chances at Bristol Rovers on Saturday.
So how can the Black Cats get Wyke firing and bring out the Premier League quality Curle is convinced he has?
The former Wimbledon defender oversaw Wyke’s most goal–laden campaign while at Brunton Park, with 18 goals in 34 appearances, meaning he is well–placed to advise on how to bring the best out of the former Middlesbrough man.
And Curle believes that regular football, a tactical switch in the forward areas from the Black Cats and improved delivery from wide areas could be the key to unleashing Wyke’s best form.
“Charlie needs a run of games and to be able to build up a relationship with a strike partner, and the team needs to put balls in the box,” he said.
“He’s better playing in a two. Charlie hasn’t got pace, so he won’t get away from people and run the channels.
“Not everybody is going to be blessed with lightning speed or a burst of pace. Charlie lacks the yards outside the box, but finds yards inside the box.”
The signing of Wyke saw a notable shift in Carlisle’s recruitment strategy under Curle.
Quickly, the priority became bringing in players with exceptional delivery – Curle using stats to identify those who would be able to provide Wyke with the ammunition he required.
On paper, that shouldn’t be a problem at the Stadium of Light – with the likes of Aiden McGeady and Lynden Gooch more than capable of supplying those chances.
But while Carlisle emphasised whipping balls into the box for Wyke and his strike partner, it’s unlikely that Jack Ross would encourage his side to change their style of play purely to accommodate the striker.
His former manager, though, doesn’t believe that will be an issue – insisting that Wyke will do whatever necessary to find the net.
“I don’t think he scored many goals for me outside the 18–yard box, or even more than 12 yards out.,” Curle admitted.
“The kid has instinctive goalscoring attributes in and around the box. He lives off crosses, thrives off them, and will score goals.
“There was a confidence throughout the team that if we put the ball into the area, Charlie would deliver.
“We actively went and recruited people like Nicky Adams, who had the highest percentage of crosses per game, per season and has won promotions because of his assists.
“We knew if he could get balls in the box then Charlie would be on the end of the them to finish it.”
“But he’s a composed finisher, he’s brave and he knows where the goal is and is prepared to go places where some centre forwards don’t,” he continued.
“With Charlie there is a natural instinct to score goals, and if he has to crash into centre backs or challenge goalkeepers then he is prepared to do it.”
It’s clearly evident that Curle remains a fond admirer of Wyke, and his former manager is confident that he will hit the goal trail in the near future.
And while Sunderland fans may be concerned about his form in front of goal, one thing they should not be concerned about is his character.
Wyke went through a similar spell during his early days at Carlisle. but came through it thanks to hard graft on the training ground – and a broken nose.
“He likes to learn and develop the lad has a fantastic work ethic and very good fitness levels,” he admitted.
“He has developed his natural body strength and is competing in men’s football very, very well.
“I still say it now, the best thing that happened to Charlie Wyke was when he broke his nose in the first two minutes of a game at Stevenage.
“I think it was a massive wake up call for him and Charlie then understood the reality of lower league football.”
Let’s hope it doesn’t take something as drastic as a broken nose to spark Wyke into life on Wearside.