MARTIN O’Neill says he hopes to give young forwards Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-won more of a run-out in Sunderland’s remaining games this season.
But he says they’ll have to earn their minutes on the pitch – rather than being allowed to play for playing’s sake.
He told the Echo: “I’m aware that players like Connor and Ji will be disappointed not to have had more time on the pitch.
“And now that we’ve passed the 40-point mark there’s maybe the opportunity to use the squad more.
“But we still want to finish this season very strongly and they’ll have to merit their inclusion.
“It would be nice during the course of the next seven matches if some of the younger lads get more of a chance to set them up for the summer, but that’s the challenge for them.
“If things had been different this season, we might have sent them out on loan purely to get them four or five full games or so, in order that they can come back sharper and fitter.
“But that hasn’t been an option for us because we’ve not got the biggest squad and we haven’t been able to let too many go out.”
Since his disappointing run-out in the FA Cup game against Middlesbrough in mid-January, £8million summer signing Wickham has made only two late substitute appearances.
Ji has also had only limited opportunities since scoring the winner in the 1-0 win over Manchester City on New Year’s Day – involved in only five games, all as substitute, all with less than quarter-of -an-hour remaining.
Now that the Black Cats are guaranteed Premier League safety in all but statistics alone, the manager can afford to see more of them and other fringe players.
But he has already shown himself prepared to include in the starting 11 those he sees as ready for the job.
Untried James McClean has established himself as a first-team regular under the new manager, Jack Colback has maintained his progress while frozen-out Matt Kilgallon has come in from the cold.
O’Neill said: “It’s great when players come into the side and prove they’re worthy of staying it, and that’s what I’d like to see happen.
“You have to be careful as a manager.
“If you play an experimental team, or players who are coming through or trying to show they can play a part then that’s fine, but it still counts as a statistical loss if you get beat – there’s no mitigation in there, there’s no explanation that you lost the game but you were looking at your players at the time.
“I make no apology for saying that we want to finish this season as strongly as possible – we want to get the maximum number of points possible.
“I hope that I’m able to involve the squad members, particularly the young lads, but they must show their worth when they get their chance. I hope that will prove to be the case.”