MARTIN O’NEILL admits the international break has dealt Sunderland a tough hand after confirmation that top scorer Steven Fletcher will miss the remainder of the campaign.
Fletcher and skipper Lee Cattermole have both been ruled out of Sunderland’s survival bid after scans revealed the extent of the former’s ankle ligament damage.
But it is not just Fletcher who has headed to the treatment table during the fortnight’s hiatus from Premier League action.
Midfielder David Vaughan is unlikely to face Manchester United on Saturday after missing both of Wales’ World Cup qualifiers with a groin strain.
And although Stephane Sessegnon is expected to be fit to tackle the league leaders, the 28-year-old has still been undergoing treatment at the Academy of Light, rather than representing Benin.
It left Sunderland boss O’Neill as an anxious spectator in the Republic of Ireland’s clash with Austria on Tuesday night, when Black Cats pair John O’Shea and James McClean were both in action.
“When you’ve got players away on international duty, that’s the risk you run,” said O’Neill.
“They have games in quick succession and also have different training sessions to the ones they might be used to at club level.
“Anything can happen and it has done.
“Watching Ireland on Tuesday night, it was good to see the lads for the Republic of Ireland didn’t get injured too, otherwise it would have been pretty bad news.
“But it’s (Fletcher) a blow we could have done without at this stage of the season.”
Sunderland only received news of the full extent of Fletcher’s ankle ligament damage yesterday after the 26-year-old landed awkwardly just two minutes into Scotland’s defeat to Wales last Friday.
Fletcher will have to wear a protective cast for the next two weeks and only then will it be known whether the £12million striker requires an operation.
The harrowing news came on the same day as Cattermole underwent surgery on the knee ligament damage which has restricted the midfielder to just 60 minutes of first-team football since November.
That was not so unexpected after a series of measures have failed to cure the 24-year-old’s injury.
O’Neill said: “I feared the worst over Fletcher. I was watching the game at the time and saw him go down.
“When the stretcher is coming onto the field, you’re just hoping the news will be better than you initially fear.
“It’s not great, but we have to get on with it.
“His ankle will have to be put in a non-weight bearing plaster for about a fortnight.
“After that, depending on whether it settles down, we’ll see whether he needs an operation or not.
“One way or another, he misses the rest of the season, which is obviously a blow to us, following on from Lee Cattermole, who had an operation yesterday.
“We’ve had to do without Lee for most of the season anyway, so that kind of news was to be expected.
“But it’s a blow for Fletcher.”
As well as Sunderland’s injury woes, the international break has also prompted much fretting over Sunderland’s survival prospects after failing to beat 10-man Norwich 11 days ago.
And O’Neill admits he would have liked to have been back in Premier League action sooner, to bounce back from the dispiriting draw with the Canaries.
“I would have preferred, just after the Norwich game, to have played within 48 hours, to be perfectly honest,” he added.
“It’s been a long wait.”