Sunderland boss Alex Neil issues worrying Dan Ballard injury update and explains his Luke O'Nien call
Alex Neil fears Dan Ballard could be facing a significant period on the sidelines after the 22-year-old suffered a foot injury in the early stages of Sunderland's 2-2 with QPR.
Ballard was injured in a late challenge that was not penalised by the referee. When Ballard tried to stand up and play on, he was unable to put any pressure on the affected foot. That continued and he eventually left the field assisted by Sunderland's physio department.
Neil confirmed that Ballard has gone to hospital for further checks.
"It's a massive blow," the Sunderland head coach said.
"Dan is a key player, we've spent money on him to improve the squad. We've lost him, and it just shows where we are. We're light.
"We've lost a signing we've brought in, if you look at the squad today we've only had two starters from who we signed in the summer, and now we've lost one of them.
"It doesn't look good for Dan.
"He's gone away to hospital and we'll see how he is from there."
Neil introduced Luke O'Nien on the right of his back three, and the versatile 27-year-old impressed throughout.
When Sunderland reverted to a back four and brought on Bailey Wright in the latter stages O'Nien pushed up into midfield, and Neil added that doesn't see Wright as a viable option on the right of a back three.
That raises the possibility of Sunderland looking to the transfer market should Ballard be ruled out for a significant period.
"It's really, really straightforward," Neil said.
"We played a back three and they played a very, very narrow front three. That means it is man for man. The simple fact is Bailey's strengths and Danny's strengths are being in the centre of that, organising and allowing the lads either side who are really mobile to get out and defend 1-v-1.
"So Aji is left-footed, he comes on if it Dennis who is injured. On the right side my only option is Luke, in terms of being comfortable in terms of defending out in those areas.
"If I'm changing the man in the middle, Bailey comes on."