MARTIN O’Neill hopes extra competition for places will spark an upturn in Sunderland’s performances.
Carlos Cuellar and Danny Rose returned to the Black Cats’ starting 11 last weekend after spells out with hamstring injuries, while a battle-sharpened Connor Wickham was recalled from a loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday, and Phil Bardsley continues to wait in the wings after overcoming a succession of ankle problems.
O’Neill believes that having those players to call on will help increase Sunderland’s chances of picking up the points they need to stave off a growing relegation threat.
The manager – who admitted this week that he is not hopeful of Lee Cattermole’s prospects of return this season – needs all the help he can get.
And he has at least had a boost on fronts, other than the skipper.
He said: “We need to have real competition for places.
“We’ve got a small squad, and we haven’t had it (competition) for much of the season.
“But we brought in a few new bodies in the January transfer window, and we do have several players coming back now, so that should help us.
“Carlos has been raring to go for several weeks, and hopefully the fact he’s had a bit of time waiting to get back into the side will have improved the chances of having no recurrence of his earlier problem.
“Danny Rose was doing terrifically well for us earlier in the season, and he has been a miss during his absence, but with a bit of luck he will stay fit between now and the end of the season, and recapture his earlier form.
“And one of the advantages of bringing in Danny Graham in January was that it afforded us the luxury of letting Connor Wickham go out on loan to get match fitness and confidence.
“Having extra options, and knowing there is pressure on places is always helpful in giving me selection decisions, and keeping players on their toes.”
Former Player of the Season Bardsley is available again and ready to shore up a defence which has started to leak in recent weeks.
But O’Neill revealed that the Scottish international continues to work for his best form.
“He’s had a tough old season,” said the Black Cats’ boss. “He played in an Under 21 game and that will have helped his fitness because it is the fitness aspect that is the problem.
“When you’re someone like him, who was injured in his second day back in pre-season and then the injury dragged on, it’s hard to get back to the pinnacle.
“The fact is that if you’re 100 per cent fit, then with that fitness comes confidence and this has been a tough campaign for him to endure.
“If he is looking forward to seeing the back of this one so that he can focus on the next one, I wouldn’t blame him.
“But he came on against QPR as a substitute, played in the U21 game on Monday and as far as things go, we have to rate him as properly fit now.
“That’s good, because the more players we have at our disposal the better at a time when we need everyone pulling together to get results.”