MARTIN O'NEILL thinks Sunderland's failure to make progress in the FA Cup could actually work to the benefit of Phil Bardsley.
The Black Cats squad return to training today after being given a few days off following last Saturday's victory at Wigan Athletic in the Premier League.
Sunderland are not due to return to action until Swansea City's visit to the Stadium of Light on Tuesday after their disappointing FA Cup exit to Bolton Wanderers in round three.
While most top-flight clubs will play this weekend in the knock-out competition, Sunderland's players are likely to be sticking to their training programme ahead of the Swans' fixture.
And with no FA Cup participation between now and the end of the season, it is hoped Bardsley can use the extra time on the training ground to build up his fitness.
O'Neill blames the fact the former Manchester United defender missed a large chunk of pre-season and the start of the campaign with an ankle problem.
When he returned in October there is a sense he has been playing catch-up, with midfielder Craig Gardner preferred to him at right-back and Danny Rose or Jack Colback selected ahead him on the left.
O'Neill said: "I think that has been a factor. This time last year he was going brilliantly, really, really strongly. He won the player of the year from the left-back position the previous year.
"By his own really decent standards Phil is finding it tough and missing pre-season and the length of time he has been out, you can't put it all down to that - sometimes you can have a pre-season in a season and it is getting that time. That's all.
"For the most part we will take the possibility of postponements or games you would have played against someone in the cup, we should have enough time now with these games almost on a weekly basis to get really proper work with the likes of Phil and the lads who have come in."
Bardsley has struggled to get back in to the Sunderland starting line-up since he was given the run around at Chelsea in December. Gardner has tended to be used in that role since.
He emerged as a substitute with five minutes remaining at the DW Stadium last Saturday, when O'Neill looked to hold on to the lead by withdrawing the more creative Stephane Sessegnon.
Defensively the Sunderland boss is relatively happy, particularly after learning that left-back Danny Rose will now be staying on Wearside for the remainder of the season.
The deadline for Tottenham to recall Rose early from his season-long loan was January 17 so O'Neill knows he can rely on his services until August - when he is likely to push for a full-time switch.
But he would still like to bring in a new striker, with Swansea's Danny Graham the preferred choice and Sunderland, who offered £4m last week, have been told to pay around £5m to land him.
Swansea are only prepared to do business if they can bring in a replacement, which would be Stoke's ex-Sunderland striker Kenwyne Jones if the South Wales club get their way.
But Graham's team-mates don't want the former Middlesbrough front-man to leave the Liberty Stadium.
Defender Ashley Williams said: "We've just been saying to him that we want him to stay, saying don't go'. We all want him to stay. He is a top player and has done well here.
"We definitely don't want him to leave and I think if you asked any player here they would say the same thing. We want him here. He has to make the right decision for himself and his family and his situation."
If Graham does arrive he will replace Fraizer Campbell, after his £600,000 switch to Cardiff, and Louis Saha, who has been told he can leave.
Saha is back in England to weigh up a move to South Africa, where he has been considering a move to Bidvest Wits before the transfer window closes on January 31.