SUNDERLAND face an intense week on the training field as Martin O’Neill looks to put his players through some “proper fitness work”.
Other than Olympics participant Ji Dong-won, Sunderland’s squad was back to full strength at the Academy of Light this morning as the Black Cats’ band of internationals returned to work.
Euro 2012 quartet Seb Larsson, John O’Shea, James McClean and Keiren Westwood, along with African duo Ahmed Elmohamady and Stephane Sessegnon – involved in World Cup and African Cup of Nations qualifiers – were all given an extra two-and-a-half weeks off by O’Neill after their exertions in the summer.
Although Westwood returned ahead of the rest to feature at Hartlepool United on Friday, today was the first time Sunderland’s squad was back together.
A tough schedule awaits the players, with Sunderland training every day this week, playing Swedish outfit Helsingborgs IF on Saturday and then getting back to work at the Academy of Light on Sunday.
Sunderland boss O’Neill is glad to get the opportunity for fitness coach Jim Henry to work with the players for a sustained period after a hectic start to pre-season.
The Wearsiders were in training for just three days before heading to South Korea for their week-long trip, landing back in the North East last Tuesday before Friday’s defeat at Victoria Park.
That left an 11-day gap between the Pools game and next week’s friendly against Derby County, with Sunderland adding Saturday’s trip to face Helsingborgs at the last minute.
O’Neill told the Echo: “It has been pretty hectic with coming back to training for a few days before setting out for Korea and then flying back at the start of last week and then playing Hartlepool.
“But this week was left free for a couple of reasons.
“Firstly, there was a possibility of us going somewhere to train for a few days, maybe to Portugal because there was a possibility of us playing Benfica. That didn’t materialise but it wasn’t a problem.
“And secondly I did want to leave some space because we’ve only just come into the training gradually and then we’ve played games earlier than we had expected.
“So I’m pleased that we’ve got the free week now, because it gives us a chance to do some proper pre-season fitness work which will stand us in good stead for the season – although it is probably not something the players would like to do!
“I would have preferred to go away and do that work somewhere else, but we have been away a week in Korea and we will be away again for three or four days next week when we play Derby and Leicester and sometimes you can spend too much time away from home.
“The Helsingborg game came up which is fine for us because we’ve decided to do it in the one day.”
Meanwhile, a Sunderland XI visit Blue Square North outfit Histon Town tonight (kick-off 7.30pm) with the bulk of the youngsters who travelled with the first-team to Korea set to form the Black Cats side.