Speaking in his pre-match press conference, Black Cats manager Alex Neil revealed that the injury to defender Carl Winchester may be worse than first feared, with the 29-year-old set for a longer stint on the treatment table.
Asked about the fitness of the Northern Irishman – who was forced off early in the 5-1 win over Cambridge last week – the former Preston North End boss said: “It’s not particularly good news on that one, it’s certainly looking like weeks rather than days”.
The 40-year-old did reveal that young Denis Cirkin is “not far away” from a return to action, although it remains to be seen if the youngster will be fit in time for this weekend’s trip to Lancashire.
This latest news will surely come as a real blow to all concerned, with the versatile Winchester having been a huge asset for the Black Cats so far this season, with the ex-Forest Green man having made 45 appearances in all competitions thus far.
His absence comes at precisely the wrong time for the promotion-chasing outfit, with it all still to play for heading into the final day of the League One campaign. The Stadium of Light club are still not certain of a place in the top six, despite being fifth in the table at present.
Even if they can secure their place in those much-coveted spots by the close of play on Saturday – with a win guaranteeing them a play-off berth – not having the Belfast-born ace in tow for those post-season games could also prove costly, with the Sunderland fanbase desperate to avoid a fifth successive campaign in the third tier.
Prior to his recent injury, the former Cheltenham Town man had been a reliable presence for the club, averaging a solid 6.80 Sofascore average match rating in the league, while also registering 1.4 clearances, two tackles and one interception per game.
Typically lining up in a right-back role, the £3.4k-per-week Winchester may have only chipped in with three goals and one assist so far this term, although has already become something of a “cult hero” due to his committed approach, according to journalist James Copley.
Former Sunderland boss Lee Johnson – who signed him on a free transfer in January 2021 – also dubbed him a “really good piece of business”, with his successor surely praying that the 29-year-old can be involved again in the coming weeks, should all go to plan against the relegation-threatened Shrimps.