EXTRA cotton wool will find its way into Sunderland’s medical cabinet over the next six weeks as Steve Bruce takes precious care of his attacking options.
With Connor Wickham sidelined, the Black Cats can ill-afford any further depletion to their frontline, with Ji Dong-won, Nicklas Bendtner and converted midfielder Stephane Sessegnon the only striker options at Bruce’s disposal.
But there was a reminder last night that there is a rookie contender up front, who hardly hindered his chances of appearing on the bench in Saturday’s clash with Fulham.
During Sunderland’s catastrophic injury woes last season, Ryan Noble had three brief substitute opportunities to prove he could make the transition to the first team.
While he didn’t prove the answer to Sunderland’s prayers in the same manner as Jack Colback, Noble undoubtedly showed promise.
Physically, the 19-year-old has significant mileage still to cover, yet he is blessed with scorching raw pace and an eye for a goal which will have inevitably caught the eye of the scores of Football League scouts at the Stadium of Light, looking to boost their ranks before next Thursday’s loan deadline.
Whether the watching Bruce is willing to let him go remains another matter.
Realistically, Noble is not a contender for a starting spot, yet, as an option from the bench against a tiring backline, he is worthy of consideration by Bruce.
It has taken the former Derby loanee a month or so to rediscover his sharpness after missing the start of the season with a recurrence of his long-standing back problem.
But Noble showed few signs of rust as he notched a treble in the reserves’ derby last night, as a youthful Newcastle side failed to contain his pace in behind.
The Millfield-born striker perhaps forgot he was only playing for the second string when he celebrated wildly in front of the travelling Newcastle fans.
Yet, along with summer signing James McClean and the composed David Meyler, he revelled in the limelight.
There were few signs of Sunderland’s second-half domination in the early stages though as the Black Cats looked too eager to impress, with the Magpies showing more poise in the middle of the park.
Newcastle winger Joan Edmundsson had a seventh minute chance to break the deadlock after both Louis Laing and John Egan got underneath their attempts to head clear.
The ball dropped to the Faroe Islands international to the left of goal, 12 yards out, but he could only shank his left-footed volley high and wide of the near post.
The first clear-cut opportunity arrived five minutes later when Noble sent McClean through on goal after the former Derry man had sprinted from his own half to get in behind the Newcastle backline.
McClean tried to take it around Magpies stopper Jak Alnwick, but went too wide and gave the keeper time to close him down and smother the resulting shot.
Newcastle had a lucky escape in the 31st minute when McClean’s header looped over the Magpies backline, with Noble ready to pounce.
But, under heavy pressure from centre-half James Tavernier, Noble could only skew an effort high and wide from 10 yards.
Noble showed more composure three minutes later as he took advantage of Newcastle’s high line to open the scoring for the Black Cats after being fed with a perfectly-weighted slide rule pass by Billy Knott.
He touched it past the backtracking Tavernier before sliding the ball beyond Alnwick, with the keeper getting a touch on it yet unable to prevent it dropping in the far corner.
Newcastle could easily have grabbed an instant equaliser but for the reflexes of Trevor Carson after the Northern Ireland stopper produced a superb stop to block Adam Campbell’s point-blank header.
But the Magpies’ defence was again punished by a ball in behind with four minutes remaining of the first half as McClean slipped in Craig Lynch down the right-hand side of the area.
Lynch took a breath but saw his shot saved by the feet of Alnwick, only for Noble to carefully tuck away the rebound on the half-volley.
Noble completed his hat-trick just 12 seconds into the second half when he latched onto Michael Liddle’s elegantly curved ball down the left-hand channel.
With Alnwick advancing towards him, Noble prodded it between the keeper’s legs from 15 yards out before the ball rolled into the net for the hitman’s treble.
It prompted a one-sided second half, with Sunderland in control yet unable to add to their advantage.
McClean, who limped through the game’s conclusion after receiving a heavy blow to the ankle, should have made more of Noble’s lay-back in the 69th minute only for the winger to blaze his effort over from 10 yards.
Edmundsson almost pulled a goal back for the Magpies with nine minutes to go, only to see his wickedly bending free-kick from 25 yards tipped over the top by Carson.
The Magpies were reduced to 10 men in the final minute of stoppage time when the excellent Matt Kilgallon strode forward and clipped the ball over the top for substitute Roarie Deacon.
Magpies left-back Patrick Nzuzi hauled back Deacon, who was clean through on goal, and was handed a straight red by referee Glen Hart.
SUNDERLAND: Carson, Laing, Liddle (Marrs 81), Meyler, Egan, Kilgallon, Lynch (Deacon 70), Knott (Reed 57), Noble, Cook, McClean. Subs not used: King, Elliott
NEWCASTLE: Alnwick, Nicholson, Nzuzi, Richardson, Streete, Tavernier, Adjei (Hooper 60), Inman, Taylor, Campbell, Edmundsson. Subs not used: Toland, Mitchell, Storey, McGorrigan.