IT’S GREAT TO BE BACK!
Wright closes in on return
Stephen Wright yesterday played his first football since August – knowing that manager Roy Keane still sees him as very much part of his plans.
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The 26-year-old right-back made his playing return in the 3-2 friendly win over Gretna at the Academy of Light yesterday alongside fellow long-term injured Kenny Cunningham. Both defenders got an hour under their belts.
For Wright, whose contract with the Black Cats expires in the summer, there was the reassurance that he is not so much playing to get himself fit, but playing for his first team place back.
Wright, who has endured a nightmare 18 months with knee and ankle injuries, told the Echo: “The ankle is good and now I just have to get my general fitness to where it needs to be.
“I’m not putting an exact date on it because I’ve had a nightmare 18 months almost non-stop with injuries. I’ve never thought of packing it in, but it has been hard.
“The gaffer’s spoken to me. He said he’s played against me and knows what I’m about. And he’s said I’ll get a chance. That’s what I wanted to hear and I thank him for that.”
Wright was three games into his comeback from an injury to his left ankle when the right one was damaged in Sunderland’s 2-0 Carling Cup loss at Bury on August 22.
“I got caught by a two-footed tackle that went over the ball but I’m not complaining about it because I like a tackle myself. It ripped up my ligaments and I needed a total reconstruction of the ankle, and I had with the left one, only worse.
“It is horrible spending such a long time injured and watching the games from the stands. I always want the lads to do well, but I want to be out there with them.”
Wright, a £3m signing from Liverpool in August, 2002, and who has made only five appearances since the start of LAST season, knows he has to try to keep a lid on his desire to get involved again.
He added: “I’ve usually come back ahead of schedule after injuries but I’ve learned that can be a mistake. The gaffer’s said that I should get the ankle absolutely right before I come back, but hopefully it won’t be much longer.”
Wright and Cunningham, who has been out since October with medical knee ligament damage, were originally intended to play only the first half of yesterday’s game against Gretna.
But at half-time both players said they felt fine and coach Kevin Richardson allowed them an extra 15 minutes in the second-half to further improve their fitness.
More friendlies are lined up and if all goes according to plan, both defenders could be back challenging for first team places as early as next month.
FORGOTTEN MEN RETURN TO ACTION
Sunderland Reserves 3 Gretna XI 2
It was not the most auspicious of comebacks for long-term injured Stephen Wright and Kenny Cunningham.
Wright found himself trailing in the slipstream of David Bingham for Gretna’s first goal.
And for the Scottish side’s second, second-half substitute Ben Pringle skinned Wright so completely that the Sunderland full-back was left on the seat of his pants and from the resulting left-wing cross, 35-year-old Cunningham sliced a clearance which looped comically over Marton Fulop’s despairing dive.
Ring-rustiness aside though, Roy Keane will be heartened that both players came through an hour’s worth of play unscathed – Wright has been out since August, Cunningham since October.
And the Sunderland manager will be looking for both players to be pushing for a first-team recall by the time the promotion run-in hots up.
The game itself, played in the same gale-force conditions that had ruined the first team game against Ipswich Town at the weekend, proved not so much to be the tale of the returning heroes, but of the forgotten men.
Sunderland’s goals came from Tommy Miller (2) and Andy Welsh – both players who have become surplus to requirements at the Stadium of Light in recent months
But there was nothing second-rate in the way they took their chances in a side which featured only one established first-teamer – Daryl Murphy – and he limped off with a slight ankle knock in the 23rd minute to be replaced by the lively Dave Dowson.
Sunderland took the lead in just the seventh minute of the game when the busy William Mocquet put in a low cross from the right wing and Miller, playing up front, side-footed home from close range.
A minute later, Mocquet was chopped down in the Gretna area for what was such a stonewall penalty that many of the fans scattered around the pitch burst into laughter when County Durham referee Ken Barker adjudged that the Frenchman had dived.
Gretna equalised 14 minutes into the game when John O’Neill’s defence-splitting pass allowed Bingham to run on to the ball, get past Wright and slot home under Marton Fulop.
Sunderland restored their lead eight minutes before the break when Miller grabbed a second after Dowson intelligently stabbed a ball forward from the half-way line for the Shotton-born player to run on to and finish coolly.
Gretna levelled for the second-time in the game in the 52nd minute when substitute Ben Pringle skipped past a flat-footed Wright and drove in a low shot which Cunningham at the near post sliced across and over his own goalkeeper.
There were few clear-cut chances in the game with the non-stop winds ruining much of the play and despite Sunderland’s second-half dominance, they struggled to test Gretna keeper Craig Fleming very often.
Once proved to be enough though, as Welsh made the most of a rare opening in front of the opposition goal.
Six minutes from time, he received the ball on the left of goal, worked his way to within 10 yards of the target and smashed home a powerful drive off the underside of the cross bar.