To add to all the positivity surrounding Sunderland AFC right now, Bailey Wright, Tom Flanagan, Denver Hume and Jordan Jones are all on the verge of returning to the first team following injuries; Connor McLaughlin will also be coming back from international duty which caused him to miss out against Bristol Rovers. Whilst we've managed to cope tremendously well without those players, their welcome returns are sure to cause Lee Johnson a selection headache!
After being substituted with a calf injury in our semi-final victory against Lincoln City in February and originally being injured at Ipswich in January, Bailey Wright has been out for some time. Whilst Dion Sanderson and Luke O'Nien have formed a formidable partnership at centre-back, the return of the Australian international is certain to be well-received. The former Bristol City captain could play a vital part in games such as Peterborough away on Eater Monday. Considering The Posh netted seven against Accrington on Saturday and are the highest scorers in the league, they pose an entire different threat to the rest of the league and lapses in concentration could prove to be even more costly in the business end of the season and can't be afforded considering the attacking storm Peterborough are capable of unleashing at the London Road stadium. Whilst Luke O'Nien has done a brilliant job at centre-half, the return of our number five at the back could be pivotal to victories in tight games and allow O'Nien game time either in midfield or at wing-back.
Having only made four appearances since the turn of the year, the return of Tom Flanagan will also bolster our defensive options. The Northern Ireland international has struggled with various injuries this season. However, with other central defensive options including Bailey Wright, Dion Sanderson and Connor McLaughlin, game time may be limited for the former Burton Albion defender, but he’d be a welcome addition to the bench because of his versatility.
After an initial injury in Johnson's first game in charge against Wigan back in December, Denver Hume has been side lined since. Having completed 45 minutes against Gateshead in a behind-closed-doors friendly last week, it looks as if the 22 year old's return is imminent. Had I been discussing his return a few weeks ago, no questions would've been asked over him coming straight back into the starting eleven. However due to Callum McFadzean's recent improvement, the Ashington-born left back may have to earn a start in the first team.
Jordan Jones has been out with calf problems since our 2-0 away win to Portsmouth on 9/3/21, a game where he earned a goal and an assist and was reported to have a 30% chance of featuring against Bristol Rovers before missing out. His return appears imminent and, due to the lack of time he's been out, he could slot straight back in. Given the dip in form from both Lynden Gooch and Jack Diamond, Jones could come straight back into the starting eleven. With his impressive pace, quality on the ball and high end product, the Rangers loanee could be vital in our run in.
After joining the Northern Ireland squad to start in their 2-1 defeat to the USA, Connor McLaughlin rejoins the lads in time for the Easter weekend. However, with Northern Ireland due to host Bulgaria on Wednesday evening, expecting him to start on Good Friday against Oxford may be a bit of a stretch. Regardless, our number 2 has been an influential figure in our backline this season, putting in solid performances at both at right-back and centre-half. Regardless of other returns, his composure on the ball and assured defensive displays have shown by the ex-League 1 team of the season member should ensure that he comes back into the starting eleven at some stage over the crucial Easter period.
With all that said, a proposed 'strongest eleven' may include a central defensive trio of Dion Sanderson, Connor McLaughlin and Bailey Wright which could allow Denver Hume and Luke O'Nien to resume their posts as wing-backs; with a mouth-watering front three of Aiden McGeady, Charlie Wyke and Jordan Jones. Alternatively, should a back four be preferred, Wright may partner Sanderson, with Hume and McLaughlin as full-backs, allowing O'Nien a shot in midfield. Regardless of whether we play a forward two, or three, McGeady and Jones on each flank is certainly a recipe for creativity and hopefully success.
Whilst these talking points could be discussed all day and night, it's great to see the manager with so many options leading into our final ten games.