WES Brown is on the verge of making his latest attempt at returning to full training as he approaches a year on the sidelines through injury.
The former England defender has not featured for Sunderland in a competitive game since last January, due to a knee problem which has continued to plague the 33-year-old.
Brown was nearing full fitness towards the end of last season, but then broke down again during Sunderland’s pre-season tour of South Korea – a setback that was originally expected to keep him out for a matter of weeks.
But every time Brown has resumed full training and began to edge closer to a first-team return, he has suffered a relapse of the problem.
The centre-half saw a specialist in London in October and was fitted with a knee brace, which has now been removed, leaving Sunderland hopeful that he can now enjoy an uninterrupted stint back on the training field.
Sunderland boss Martin O’Neill told the Gazette: “Wes is making good progress, although the number of times I’ve said that is unbelievable.
“He’s not that far away again from getting back into training.
“He’s had a few setbacks, but he’s working exceptionally hard.
“It’s been a frustrating time for him, and it must get you down when you’re out for that length of time.”
Brown has featured just seven times under O’Neill during the manager’s 12 months in charge at the Stadium of Light after initially impressing on Wearside following his £1m move from Manchester United.
Fellow former United defender John O’Shea has joined Brown on the treatment table over the last fortnight after missing Sunderland’s last two games with a calf injury.
O’Shea had no chance of participating in last weekend’s defeat at Norwich City, and this Saturday’s clash with Chelsea looks to have come too soon for the Republic of Ireland captain too.
But unlike skipper Lee Cattermole, O’Shea is not thought to be facing a significant lay-off with O’Neill encouraged by the progress of the 31-year-old.
“He’s responding well at this minute, quite well,” added O’Neill.
“We were worried about it, but he is getting better by the day.”
Carlos Cuellar and Matt Kilgallon have been paired together in O’Shea’s absence, with the latter preferred to fit-again Titus Bramble.
But Bramble played the full 90 minutes of Sunderland Under-21s’ 4-1 victory over Stoke City on Monday, and could come into O’Neill’s thoughts this weekend.