PAUL THIRLWELL is poised for his first start for eight weeks on Saturday as Mick McCarthy tries to cope with a midfield selection crisis.

The Sunderland manager could be without Colin Healy and Alan Quinn as well as Jason McAteer for Saturday's trip to Crewe Alexandra.

That means Thirlwell, who has not begun a first-team game since September 27, is in line to partner Jeff Whitley in the centre of midfield at Gresty Road.

McAteer is expected to make his comeback from a hamstring injury in tonight's reserve fixture at Blackburn Rovers.

But the Sunderland captain will not be fit enough to figure in the starting line-up against Crewe.

Quinn (knee) and Healy (toe) are also struggling to shake off injuries in time to face the Railwaymen.

Sunderland target Jon Stead is "very flattered" to be linked with the Black Cats, the Huddersfield Town striker's agent claimed last night.

John Seasman said: "Jonathan wants to play at the highest level and I'm sure Jonathan is very flattered by the interest that is being shown in him.

"But it's not a matter that is in his hands; it is something between Huddersfield and Sunderland.

"Sunderland is a massive club which is geared for the Premiership, the facilities at Sunderland are second to none and the fans in the North-East are so passionate."

Sunderland have already had a near-£1m bid for Stead turned down by Huddersfield.