LEWIS GRABBAN will be assured of a hostile reception when he returns to the Stadium of Light tonight, even if Chris Coleman claims Sunderland were not much better off with him in their ranks.

Grabban is expected to lead the line for Aston Villa on Wearside, just a few weeks after cutting short his season-long loan early so he could swap a relegation scrap for a promotion charge.

The 30-year-old struck 12 goals for Sunderland and remains the club’s leading scorer; his last game was on December 23 when he found the net against Birmingham.

After that, Coleman claims, the much-travelled frontman was angling to leave and Sunderland were left short of attacking options, meaning an over-reliance initially on teenagers Josh Maja and Joel Asoro.

“He got 12 goals for us, Lewis, but we were still in the bottom three (when he left),” said Coleman. “He was on loan, we hadn’t signed him in fairness to him.

“There was a clause in his contract that he could exercise or Bournemouth could. What’s happened is that there was talk he could go to this club or that club who were looking at him. He’s chosen Aston Villa – good choice.

“As far as I’m concerned it’s done and dusted. Our supporters will look at it and go, ‘if we still had him, maybe we could have scored more goals.’ But we had him until January anyway and we were still in the bottom three.

“He had an opportunity which he took. I’ve no gripe over that, it was his choice.”

What Coleman was surprised by was how Grabban’s return to Bournemouth came about. There had been talk about him choosing to do so, with the intention of then moving out again to a club competing at the top end of the Championship.

The Sunderland manager said: “The first I heard of it was when I found out Lewis had cancelled his accommodation, which obviously sets the alarm bells ringing.

“It was the media who asked me if there was a clause that meant he could go back in January. I found out there was, so then you’re thinking, ‘OK, this is something which could happen.’ You hoped it didn’t.

“When I found out he cancelled his accommodation clearly you knew what was going to happen. Lewis went to speak to Martin Bain (chief executive) and Martin asked him (if he wanted to go) and he said ‘Yeah, I’m going back to Bournemouth.’

“That’s up to the player, he’s got an opportunity to go and play where he thinks he can do better, that’s up to the player.”

Asked if he expected Sunderland fans to boo him, Coleman added: “I wouldn’t want to build it up. He’s a goalscorer but Aston Villa aren’t third in the league for nothing. At this level they’re a strong, strong team, pushing for automatic (promotion).

“But what we can’t do is get bogged down just with one player. We can’t worry about Aston Villa we’ve just got to get our own heads right and concentrate on ourselves.

“Our fans will do what they want to do at the end of the day, no matter what I say. They’ll sing or they won’t sing. I’ve got to make sure, we’ve got to make sure they’re concentrating on Sunderland – for positive reasons. They’ll do that if we’re playing well and if they see that we’re committed to it.”

Grabban’s departure meant Coleman had to look for an alternative attacking option to help Sunderland’s fight for survival – and with no money available.

He ended up persuading Ashley Fletcher and Middlesbrough to complete a loan deal and the £6.5m striker.

It has been a frustrating season for the 22-year-old since leaving West Ham and he hopes the switch to Sunderland can help him rediscover his confidence and form in the final third – and so does Coleman.

The former Wales manager said: “It’s hard for Ash because he’s only 22. He’s had half a season with Barnsley in the division below us, when he did very, very well. Then he gets a big move to West Ham, then a big move to Middlesbrough without playing. Then he comes to us on loan and all strikers need to score goals.

“He knows he’s got more in his locker but he’s still only 22. When we lost Lewis Grabban and we only had Joel and Josh, 18 and 19, we needed someone else. It’s not easy when you don’t have transfer funds to say, ‘We’ll have this one or that one.’ But Fletcher’s someone we know and we think he’s a good player who’s going to get better and better.”

Coleman believes that, having worked with the player over the last month, Fletcher has the right mentality to succeed.

He said: “It’s not easy to come here when you’re bottom of the league and when you’re wearing the No 9 for Sunderland, you’re going to be looked at. I think he needs a goal to boost his confidence and I think he’ll get it sooner or later.

“We forget he’s not very old, he hasn’t got a world of experience. I still believe that between now and the end of the season he’ll get goals and he’ll have been well worth bringing here to help the other young boys, Josh and Joel.”

Sunderland should have another option up front tonight with Kazenga LuaLua expected to be named on the bench after coming through the last few training sessions fine.

Coleman accepts time is running out for Sunderland as they sit four points adrift of safety and rooted to the foot of the table after the draw at Millwall.

He said: “We have the 11 games, 33 points, we are four from where we need to be after the last game. That’s not insurmountable."