MARTIN O’Neill admits he would have allowed Ji Dong-won to leave the Stadium of Light on loan this season if Sunderland had greater strength in depth.
But the Black Cats boss still believes the South Korean has a big future on Wearside as he becomes better acclimatised to the demands of English football.
Ji has enjoyed a mixed first season in the Premier League after last summer’s move from K-League outfit Chunnam Dragons – making just one start for the Black Cats and only five appearances from the bench since O’Neill succeeded Steve Bruce.
While the 20-year-old produced one of the moments of the season with his winner against Manchester City on New Year’s Day, he was also guilty of the campaign’s most glaring miss after blazing over from four yards at Blackburn Rovers in midweek.
But O’Neill has been impressed by Ji’s ability on the training field and just regrets that he couldn’t have allowed the striker the chance to further his first-team experience on loan.
O’Neill told the Echo: “In an ideal world, it would be great for Ji to have gone out on loan for a month or so to somewhere he could have played three or four consecutive games. But we just can’t afford to do it because of the size of the squad.
“I didn’t know a lot about Ji when I first came here, but I think I’m in a position now to talk about him. Technically, Ji is very, very good. He’s got really good control, can receive the ball and he’s got a good touch.
“It’s just a case of him learning the ways of the Premier League and get used to a very different style of football than to what he was used to in South Korea.
“He certainly has the natural talent in abundance and I’m sure he will go on to be an important player for us.”
Ji made the bench for the first time in five games on Tuesday night and could lose his place in the matchday squad again tomorrow with Stephane Sessegnon back at O’Neill’s disposal.
But O’Neill believes the likes of Ji and fellow summer buys Connor Wickham and James McClean will benefit from working with one of his former players, ex-Celtic winger Steve Guppy, who is conducting one-to-one technical sessions with Sunderland’s rookies.
“Everybody wants Ji to do well and he’ll benefit from the extra coaching he’s getting from Steve Guppy,” added O’Neill.