CRAIG Gardner will miss Sunderland’s trip to Fulham on Sunday after collecting his fifth yellow card of the season.
And Gardner may not be the only key figure missing for the Black Cats at Craven Cottage, with Martin O’Neill sweating over the fitness of several players, including top scorer Steven Fletcher – who has pulled out of the Scotland squad to meet Luxembourg in a friendly on Wednesday.
Gardner was booked midway through the second half of Saturday’s defeat at Goodison Park after hauling down Everton left-back Leighton Baines.
The 25-year-old, who has been an ever-present in the Premier League for Sunderland this season, will now serve a one-match ban – sidelining him for the televised clash with the Cottagers.
It potentially leaves Sunderland boss O’Neill with a major headache at right-back after first-choice Phil Bardsley failed to recover from a hamstring strain in time to feature on Merseyside.
Bardsley – who has also withdrawn from the Scotland squad – sustained the problem against Aston Villa nine days ago. After only being able to participate in training on Friday, O’Neill opted not to risk the former Manchester United defender.
Skipper Lee Cattermole was also ruled out of the Everton clash with a minor hamstring problem, which he sustained in training on Friday.
It forced O’Neill to rush both Titus Bramble and James McFadden back from injury to occupy places on the bench after Fraizer Campbell was left out.
But Fletcher is potentially O’Neill’s biggest concern after the Scotland striker suffered a heavy blow to his calf area in a second-half collision with Everton defender John Heitinga.
Fletcher was in agony after the challenge and although he continued following treatment, he was replaced by Louis Saha with 20 minutes to go.
The concern over Fletcher’s fitness could scupper Connor Wickham’s chances of a loan move to the Championship after the 19-year-old made his first appearance of the season as a late substitute at Goodison.
Reports yesterday suggested Sheffield Wednesday had leapt to the front of the queue for Wickham’s services after Wolves and former club Ipswich were also linked with a loan move for the £8million frontman.
But if there are genuine concerns over Fletcher, O’Neill is unlikely to further deplete Sunderland’s numbers after approving a two-month loan for midfielder David Meyler last week.
H Sunderland Under-21s look to make amends for last week’s 1-0 defeat to Southampton when Kevin Ball’s side face Aston Villa at Hinckley United’s De Montfort Park tonight. The young Black Cats beat Villa 2-0 at the Academy of Light just 11 days ago, when Wickham grabbed both goals.