STEVE BRUCE has had the blow of losing defender Ciaran Clark for the rest of the season softened by the news that Newcastle United midfielder Jonjo Shelvey should return to action this weekend.

Shelvey has not appeared since January 18 because of a hamstring problem but he has made sufficient progress for Bruce to consider recalling him to face Burnley at St James’ Park tomorrow.

The 27-year-old’s last appearance was the 1-0 win over Chelsea on Tyneside and Newcastle have not won any of their games since, with the exception of an extra-time success at Oxford in the FA Cup fourth round replay.

Newcastle’s four-match winless run in the Premier League since has seen them drop to 14th but they still hold a decent seven-point advantage over the relegation zone.

But Bruce knows his team are heading into a crucial period of fixtures in the battle to avoid falling into real trouble, so to have a key midfielder like Shelvey available again is a boost to the cause.

After the visit of in-form Burnley and the FA Cup trip to West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle have a run of league games against Southampton, Sheffield United, Aston Villa, Bournemouth and West Ham.

That sequence of games is likely to go a long way in determining whether Newcastle will be deep in a relegation fight in the final five games of the season, with Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool all still to play.

Bruce’s options at the back have been rocked by the news Clark will not play again this season.

The Republic of Ireland defender damaged ankle ligaments in the 4-0 defeat at Arsenal and was forced to leave the Emirates on crutches.

He has been an important part of Newcastle’s season after he made the most of the chance Bruce game him in October at a time when he must have wondered when his next appearance would come from.

Clark had also forced his way back into Ireland’s plans for the Euro 2020 play-off double header with Slovakia next month – and now Newcastle have had three defenders told they will not play again this campaign.

Paul Dummett and Jetro Willems were both already told they will not figure again, while Spanish full-back Javier Manquillo has not played since tearing his hamstring on New Year’s Day.

Newcastle are well stocked with defenders but nearly all of them have had their injury problems this season. Bruce is considering changing the team’s shape after a poor run of form that has increased concerns once again.

Fabian Schar, who was crowned the North-East Football Writers’ Association’s player of the year for 2019 on Sunday night, has been recalled to the side in the absence of Clark and will hope to keep his shirt to face the Clarets this Saturday.

But Newcastle, who have won just one league game this year, are in desperate need of a lift from somewhere and Bruce will be hoping the return of Shalvey can provide the spark he is looking for.

Newcastle’s Under-23s head to Bishop Auckland’s Heritage Park to face Middlesbrough in the Premier League 2 at 7pm tonight.

The young Magpies are hoping for the win that takes them a step closer to the play-offs. Boro are four points ahead of their North-East neighbours going into the test.

But Newcastle are four matches unbeaten as they head to County Durham and Newcastle’s Liam Gibson said: “It will be a tough one. It’s always going to be difficult when both teams are fighting for a play-off place but I think we have enough to take three points.”