The Sunderland AFC Q&A: Key injury updates, Ross Stewart latest, January plans & season so far assessed

Sunderland are currently training in Dubai as they prepare to return to Championship action against Millwall next weekend.

Tony Mowbray's side face Al-Shabab FC on Friday afternoon before returning to Wearside.With a January window also moving onto the horizon, we've been looking at all the key issues at the club in our regular Q&A...

What's the latest on injuries - and who could we see involved on Friday?

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The news from Dubai looks pretty encouraging. Ross Stewart has joined his team-mates in sessions, which he explained to us a couple of weeks back as being a really important step if he's to return against Millwall next Saturday. That raises the possibility he could play some part on Friday, though Tony Mowbray has stressed that he will need to be phased back into the side just as Ellis Simms was. It wouldn't be a major concern if we didn't seem on Friday.

Elsewhere it looks as if most recoveries are on schedule. Mowbray was hopeful that Lynden Gooch and Aji Alese would be fit to face Millwall, and both are training.

You'd think they'd be involved on Friday. Dan Ballard has also been training with the group which is a major positive, though at Birmingham City Mowbray said he expected Millwall to come just too soon for him and so there'd be some doubt at this stage as to whether he'll be involved.

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Also involved has been Edouard Michut, which is promising news. Mowbray felt he was just on the cusp of regularly competing for the three central midfield roles when he suffered another injury at Luton Town, so he'll feel that's another important option. Friday could be a big game for him.*While we're discussing the game on Friday, it would be remiss not to mention that many fans have raised concerns about the decision to play an opponent from Saudi Arabia given the human rights record of the regime in that country. Indeed, the Red & White army have said they will be taking some of those concerns to the club. I've shared my own thoughts on Twitter, which is that it's a poor choice and one always likely to prove divisive. Clearly, there are a wide range of views on the matter and not everyone agrees by any stretch. My hope is that the controversy proves to be the start of a meaningful dialogue between fans and the club, because in the modern game everyone has to face up to these issues at some stage and it's crucial that the views of supporters are heard and placed front and centre to these decisions.

What's the latest on Ross Stewart - both in terms of his contract and his future more broadly?

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Ross Stewart is closing in on a Sunderland return

Kristjaan Speakman and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus both told supporters at a recent RAWA Q&A that their intention remained to secure a longer-term deal for Stewart. The Scot is currently out of contract in the summer, but the club have the option to extend for a further year automatically.

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As such, Speakman said he remained relaxed about the situation and that the talks remained amicable.

Talks have been going on for much of this year, however, and a resolution has not been reached so there is very clearly a gap between the two parties.

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Stewart would like to extend and is very happy at the club, and Sunderland are I think prepared to recognise him as one of their key assets. However, they have not yet managed to bridge the gap.

Stewart told me recently that his focus is getting back fit and proving himself at this level over a longer period, whilst helping his team climb the table. I think that's a very genuine reflection of his aims while talks continue in the background.

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Throwing it forward, my opinion would be that it's in everyone's interests for him to stay for at least the rest of this season. It's a chance for him to prove himself further, and for the club to realise something closer to his full value if they can't reach an agreement on fresh terms.

Stewart wants to test himself in the Premier League, and Sunderland want to get there in the long term. What Louis-Dreyfus added at that meeting was that (with any player, not Stewart specifically) if a Premier League club comes in along the way with a significant offer, then that can help the club on its journey in improving the squad.

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That's why no one - club or player - will offer guarantees in terms of the short term. So we'll watch it space.

Where are Sunderland at with January - what positions will they be targeting and will there be funds available?

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Louis-Dreyfus said at the Q&A with fans that he felt the club were still in the phase of trying to grow the value of the squad, basically saying that further investment was still required. So I'd expect there to be some movement.

As for the day-to-day operations, the recruitment team have been tracking potential transfer targets since the summer window and met with Mowbray a fortnight or so ago to look more specifically at the positions that will be targeted. From that stage, the discussion is now much more focused on who could be available and become a key target.

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In terms of the positions they target, I'd be surprised if they didn't go for a holding midfielder. Corry Evans is the only specialist in the squad even if Edouard Michut can play there, and they tried to strengthen this position on deadline day in the summer to no avail. Recruitment up front is surely a must, particularly given the uncertainty over Stewart's longer-term future.

Beyond that it'll be a judgement on where they feel more competition and quality is needed. Full back has been a position of vulnerability this season, but Trai Hume and Niall Huggins have taken encouraging steps of late and Aji Alese has looked a real find when fit even if his natural position would be a central one.

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How would you rate Sunderland's performance in the first phase of the season?

I'd give it 7.5/10.

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The aim was always to consolidate, and points-wise you would say Sunderland are more than halfway to safety than less with half of the games played. Then you add in the context, a very popular and impressive head coach leaving after just a few games and a team having to play without any fit strikers for the best part of two months.

I think for Sunderland to be where they are, having played some good football and scored some genuinely brilliant goals along the way, is a more than solid return.

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I don't really feel we can judge Mowbray's tenure at all yet, other than to say he's steered them through a very challenging period with some key results. I think he's also managed the introduction of late summer signings such as Amad very well, and hopefully the rewards for that will be there going ahead.

We should see a much better blueprint for how he wants to take the team forward when he has some of these key players back after the break. Hopefully it's the start of an exciting period.