WES Brown is continuing to work on a first-team return that has now been over a year in the making.
The 33-year-old has not played competitive football since January 29, 2012, when he limped out of Sunderland’s 1-1 FA Cup draw against Middlesbrough after falling just after the hour and damaging his knee.
Since then the ex-Manchester United has had a series of abortive comebacks – the closest to a return coming last summer when he was involved in the Black Cats’ trip to South Korea for the Peace Cup.
But he pulled up early in Sunderland’s 3-2 victory over Groningen last July after hurting his knee again and was sidelined until a couple of months ago when he made a return to first-team training, only to break down once more in December.
Such an absence, especially for a player in his 30s, inevitably casts doubt over his footballing future.
But Brown is determined to do everything physically possible to engineer a return to first-team football and the club are standing behind his quest to successfully resume his playing career.
Significantly, the former England defender was included in the Sunderland squad which enjoyed a sunshine break in Dubai last week and every effort is being made by the club to keep him involved and feeling part of things.
But O’Neill admits that it has been a testing time for Brown, mentally as well as physically.
“It has been really tough for Wes, a real challenge,” he said.
“He’ll do a few days training, he does a few days here and there, and then he has a setback and it has been really frustrating for him. But all he can do is keep on trying.
“It’s not what he would have expected when he first got injured and I feel for him.
“It’s a shame for the lad and it’s hard for him to take.”
Brown joined Sunderland in July, 2011, on a four-year contract, with manager Steve Bruce paying £1m for the services of the experienced defender.
The new signing shone initially and was an ever-present until injuring his groin during the New Year’s Day win over Manchester City.
But it was the season-ending injury against Middlesbrough from which his problems have really stemmed and in all he has played only seven games since O’Neill took the reins.