MARTIN O'NEILL thinks Wes Brown could still play for Sunderland this season but is fears another set-back in the defender's attempts to make a full recovery.
It is now more than a year since Brown last pulled on a red and white shirt in competitive action and he has been showing signs of progress in his rehabilitation from a chronic knee problem.
The former Manchester United centre-back has been dipping in and out of first team training since the squad's warm weather trip to Dubai a fortnight ago.
O'Neill has been encouraged with what he has seen from the 33-year-old in recent weeks, although having been here before he is not counting on anything just yet.
The Sunderland manager said: "The way things are going now, yes, he could play this season but, again, I'll tread carefully, because every time you've asked me this season, he seems to have had a setback."
It was on January 29 last year when Brown hobbled out of Sunderland's 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough in the FA Cup after sustaining damage to the ligaments in his knee.
He had been on course to start this campaign back in August until pulling up in Sunderland's 3-2 win over Groningen at the Peace Cup in South Korea last July.
Brown edged closer to his long-awaited comeback in December, but after his return to first team training he broke down once more and has been out of action until now.
O'Neill will not be making any wild predictions, but said: "He trained with us for a day or two out in Dubai and continued here last week, missed out a couple of days, but has been training.
"It's a gradual thing and it'd be great if could get a fortnight's training without having to take a break. He's been out a long, long time so I'm not expecting miracles or for him to be participating with us in the next two weeks.
"But if he can be as fit as he possibly can at some stage between now and the end of the season it would give him something to aim for."
More Sunderland AFC News
- Quinn thinks Colback should not be booed ahead of facing Sunderland
- Adam Johnson looking to create more happy Tyne-Wear derby memories for Sunderland
- Press conference update: Giaccherini 'raring to go' for Sunderland as Poyet prepares for derby
- Poyet applies pressure as the transfer window nears
- Burnley striker on Sunderland's radar as Poyet hopes for derby day calm
- Poyet warns more bore draws are on the way unless more quality is brought in
- Fletcher desperate to be part of Sunday's Tyne-Wear derby after missing last two
- Match Analysis: Sunderland 1 West Ham United 1
- Match Ratings: Sunderland 1 West Ham United 1
- Poyet left frustrated after yet another Sunderland draw