MARTIN O’Neill insists Phil Bardsley remains his number one choice at right-back despite the outstanding work of Craig Gardner in that position.
And he says once the Scottish international is fully fit again he can expect to go straight back into the side.
The Sunderland manager ran the rule over Bardsley on Thursday afternoon in a behind-closed-doors game against Middlesbrough at Rockcliffe primarily designed to improve the full-back’s match fitness.
And with the fortnight’s international break coming up, the 27-year-old could be available for selection again as soon as the derby game against Newcastle United on Saturday, October 21.
Whether or not to make the derby at the Stadium of Light Bardsley’s first game back will be a bridge O’Neill will cross if and when he comes to it.
But for the moment he is no doubt about the worth of a defender who he has been deprived for the whole of the campaign so far.
“Phil coming back towards full fitness is great for us,” he said.
“It has been a difficult time for him but he appears to be really on his way back now, which is really good news.
“He has been out a long, long time. He injured himself in pre-season, missed the trip to South Korea, which was OK.
“But when we came back and thought he was making really good progress we found there was something floating around inside his ankle which had to be removed.
“And now I’m hoping he will be free of injury for a while.
“Right-back is Phil’s position while Craig Gardner (right) is essentially a midfielder.
“He has done very well from there but we have missed his attacking threat further up the field and when Phil is back, he’s obviously still going to be our first-choice right-back.
“He has done really well during my time here and it was a shame he wasn’t available as expected from the very start of the season.”
The Sunderland manager though is a big admirer of the job Gardner has done in Bardsley’s absence, which included getting forward to provide an assist for Steven Fletcher in the recent 1-1 draw at Liverpool, as well as getting on the scoresheet with the 2-0 defeat of MK Dons thanks to a trademark blistering free-kick.
He said: “Craig has done very well there.
“I played him at full-back sometimes at Aston Villa but he’s a better player now all round and that is really down to him.
“He has gone at his game and is less fearful about playing full-back now, he worries less about his wingers and I think he is reading the game much better now too.
“It has been good for us to call on a player who can do as well as Craig has in Phil’s absence.”