WES Brown will be allowed to continue his comeback at his own pace despite taking an encouraging step on the road to recovery.
The former England international played the full 90 minutes for Sunderland Under-21s in a behind-closed-doors encounter with Blackpool at the Academy of Light yesterday after gradually increasing his work on the training field over recent weeks.
It was Brown’s first taste of game action since re-aggravating a knee injury during the summer’s pre-season tour of South Korea, and the first time he has managed to complete a full 90 minutes since January last year.
But despite the fitness boost for the 33-year-old, the centre-half remains highly unlikely to feature for Sunderland’s first-team this season.
Brown has been beset by false dawns throughout the campaign – returning to training on several occasions before suffering yet another setback.
And Martin O’Neill is wary of raising any expectations surrounding Brown’s return, preferring instead to adopt an ultra-cautious approach with the ex-Manchester United man.
“Wes has been getting through the work on the training ground for a while now, and it is encouraging,” said the Sunderland manager.
“But he is a million miles away from being available for a match, and it would be wrong to put any spotlight on him after having been out for as long as he has been.
“We have just got to let Wes get on with it, and I hope he keeps going in the right direction.”
Just the sight of Brown in a Sunderland shirt is an encouraging one though, particularly with doubts growing over whether he will ever play first-team football again.
Brown, who still has a further two years to run on his Sunderland contract, has been out for 14 months with the knee ligament problem first sustained against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup fourth round.
And he came through unscathed yesterday in a 2-1 victory for the Black Cats.
Ryan Noble gave Sunderland the lead before the interval when he tapped home Adam Reed’s pull-back.
Blackpool then looked to have denied the hosts a win with 10 minutes to go when on-loan Leicester forward Marco Futacs bundled the ball over the line.
But Sunderland regained the lead in the dying stages through midfielder Alex Gorrin, who tapped home after Noble’s shot was saved.