PHIL Bardsley has put himself on course for a derby return after successfully coming through another warm-up game last night.
The former Player of the Season has yet to kick a ball in anger in Sunderland’s 2012-13 campaign after suffering a foot injury in the first week of pre-season.
But he has been in training for a couple of weeks now and last night came through 79 minutes of Sunderland’s Under 21 development squad’s 1-0 victory over Stoke City.
It was the second match he had played in since returning to full training.
Last Thursday, a behind-closed-doors friendly at Middlesbrough was specifically arranged so that Bardsley could get a feel for competitive football again.
And after the full-back showed no ill-effects from the Teesside game, which saw Sunderland run-out 2-1 winners courtesy of a brace from Hartlepool-bound striker Ryan Noble, the Scottish international was included in Kevin Ball’s Under 21 squad for last night’s game.
The 27-year-old’s progress is being closely monitored by Martin O’Neill, who told the Echo: “We’re hoping that Phil can make good progress over the next fortnight with the international break on.”
Bardsley’s two games inside a week will certainly have boosted his fitness levels and the manager will have a big decision to make as derby day approaches, knowing that the defender is one of Sunderland’s most consistent and competitive defenders.
The former Manchester United youth player has been first-choice right-back under O’Neill, who has stated that Bardsley remains the preferred option in that position, despite Craig Gardner’s excellent performances as a stand-in this season.
Should Bardsley play in the derby against Newcastle United a week Sunday, it’s likely to represent something of a gamble – the defender making his return in the most intense fixture of the season.
But O’Neill has shown just recently his readiness to be bold – bringing Carlos Cuellar back into the first-team squad the moment he felt the Spaniard was fit enough.
And if Bardsley does return, not only would it give the back-four a much more familiar look, it would also allow Gardner to move forward and compete for a place in central midfield, with skipper Lee Cattermole still suspended.