LEE JOHNSON is confident Sunderland will be able to make a safe return from their Covid outbreak when they line up at Northampton Town tomorrow, although the Black Cats boss concedes there will be one player who will not be selected because they are still experiencing some after-effects from their infection.

Sunderland will end an enforced two-and-a-half week exile when they line up at Sixfields, with Johnson having revealed that 14 players plus a number of additional staff members tested positive for Covid earlier this month.

All 14 of those players have ended their isolation periods, with Sunderland’s Academy of Light training ground having reopened on Sunday to enable Johnson and his squad to prepare for today’s return to action.

Understandably, the whole of the squad have been closely monitored this week, and Johnson has confirmed there is one player who will not be considered for selection tomorrow because their recovery has been much slower than that of their team-mates.

“We don’t have anyone who cannot be selected because of Covid,” said Johnson. “Everybody has done their time. We have a couple of players that you wouldn’t say were at their absolute peak, they’re not 100 per cent, but at the same time, we don’t believe they’re a health risk.

“We’ve got one that had a bit of a double dip, and that will probably become clearer when you see the team selection (at Northampton). He could play, but it’s probably safer not to play him.”

Sunderland’s outbreak first became apparent in the build-up to the game against AFC Wimbledon on December 15.

That proved a chaotic evening, with players developing symptoms on an almost hourly basis, and with the benefit of hindsight, Johnson accepts that Sunderland should have called off the game rather than playing amid fears of possible repercussions from the EFL.

“That was why I was so vocal on that Wimbledon game,” he said. “You get a sense that this is serious because there were too many people with symptoms, coughing and spluttering. In hindsight, that game should have been called off.

“But it’s easy being a Monday-morning quarterback and looking at it now. At the time, that was genuinely how I felt, but at least we’re over it now and we can look to the future.”

Clearly, the last two weeks have represented a less-than-ideal start to Johnson’s tenure as Sunderland’s head coach.

However, while he would have preferred to have been playing matches, the enforced hiatus has enabled the former Bristol City boss to get to know some of his players and staff members, and observe how they have reacted to an extremely difficult situation.

He has been extremely impressed with their response – Sunderland’s players were doing Zoom workouts in their front rooms or back gardens in the morning, before taking part in a series of remote tactical sessions in the afternoon – and is hoping the shared experience has helped to bring everyone together.

“It’s obviously not been ideal preparations, but I have to say that the boys have been absolutely top drawer,” he said. “They’ve done everything we’ve asked of them to the letter of the law. The ones that were struggling – and there were three or four that were struggling – seem to have bounced back. The last couple of days, we’ve had relative consistency in terms of a training group and a team to work with.

“I was warned that it was Sunderland, so there’d be some fun and surprises! To be fair, everybody is dealing with their own versions of it, whether that is key players out with Covid or some managers that have had it. I think the challenge is to thrive in the uncertainty.”

With next weekend’s scheduled game against Fleetwood already having been called off because of Covid issues in the opposition camp, however, Johnson admits to concerns about the fixture demands in the remainder of the season. Increasingly, extending the season in Leagues One and Two looks inevitable.

“Naturally, you’ve got concerns, he said. “We want to try to advance in the Papa John’s Trophy, so if that was to go well, potentially we could have 32 games just to finish the season. That is a lot to fit in, particularly given the fact that our Fleetwood game has been called off too. It’s going to take some sort of algorithm or brainbox to slot in the fixtures, or of course you could extend the season, which is an option open to the EFL.”