STEVE Bruce admits Sunderland face an uphill challenge to get a fully fit squad for the start of next season.
The Black Cats were without 10 first-teamers for last weekend’s win at Bolton and are likely to be similarly depleted for Saturday’s visit of Wolves.
The concern for Bruce is that five of those players – Craig Gordon, David Meyler, Fraizer Campbell, Michael Turner and Lee Cattermole – are potentially long-term absentees.
Gordon will struggle to be fit for the start of next season after knee surgery, Campbell is out for 12 months, Meyler hasn’t played since January despite being named on the bench twice, while Turner and Cattermole both missed the Bolton game with recurring knee and back problems.
Bruce said: “Even now we’ve got a lot of people out for a long time.
“That’s the big challenge for us now – getting them back, even for next season.
“You’re talking about Craig Gordon, David Meyler, Fraizer Campbell, Turner, Cattermole – they’re serious injuries that they’ve got. That’s the big challenge we face, to get them fit for next season.”
He added: “This season has been as difficult as anything I have faced.
“At the end of January, we had the Darren Bent situation, which was untimely. We all didn’t want it to happen but it did. Then unfortunately the injuries kicked in – Danny Welbeck and Fraizer Campbell. They were meant to be back, but it didn’t happen.
“Then Asamoah Gyan gets injured. It’s been frustrating and difficult.
“You have to have the strength to see it through and thankfully we had a little bit of luck on Saturday at Bolton.
“It was a fantastic achievement, arguably one of my biggest results for a long, long time. Maybe ever.”
Bruce hopes three points at the Reebok has lifted some of the speculation surrounding his future.
The Sunderland boss will now speak with chairman Niall Quinn and owner Ellis Short to formalise the club’s transfer plans for the summer.
“This run has taught me how difficult it is in the North East,” added Bruce.
“Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t swap it for anything. It’s the challenge I always wanted. It’s been such a frustrating time for us, that’s the disappointment.
“I’m sure we’ll now sit down with the powers that be and plan ahead. We’ve got some difficult decisions to make because of the injury situation we’ve got.
“It’s difficult for any club to have, but when you have four or five serious ones like we’ve had then the question is: Are they ready for next season? Can they handle it? We certainly hope so.”
Meanwhile, Bruce has urged Sunderland supporters to once again turn up in their droves for Saturday’s final home game of the season as the Black Cats look to finish in the top half.
“We are now in a position, with the run-in we have, where we can really have a good go at it and achieve what would be the club’s third-best finish in 55 years,” he added.
“Make no mistake, the other two clubs (Wolves and West Ham United) are fighting for their lives, but we also know we could send a packed stadium home happy this Saturday and we have a real chance to finish on a high.”
Tickets for the Wolves game (kick-off 12.45pm) start from £10 for children and £23 for adults.