LEE JOHNSON insists he cannot afford to get caught up on questions over Dion Sanderson’s future beyond the end of the season, but the Sunderland head coach hopes his relationship with the Wolves loanee is evidence of just how highly he rates the centre-half.

Sanderson’s season-long loan from Molineux will expire at the end of the current campaign, at which point he will enter the final year of his permanent contract with Wolves.

There has been mounting speculation over what will happen at that point, with some observers suggesting he will be given a chance to prove himself under Nuno Espirito Santo while others claim Wolves could look to cash in and sell, with Crystal Palace and Sheffield United believed to be interested.

Provided they win promotion to the Championship, Sunderland would be extremely interested in either a permanent transfer or another season-long loan deal, with Sanderson’s experiences over the course of the last eight months potentially strengthening their hand.

The 21-year-old has established himself as the Black Cats’ number one centre-half in the absence of injured duo Bailey Wright and Tom Flanagan, with Johnson having cultivated a close personal relationship that has benefited both parties.

“The Sunderland to Wolves stuff is nothing really to do with me, apart from knowing Nuno quite well, because I did my Pro Licence on him,” said the Sunderland manager. “My relationship is with Dion, and I think that’s the key relationship there.

“Does he feel valued, does he feel trusted in his performance? Hopefully, he would say yes and we certainly trust him and his quality. He’s had a good, extended run of games now. I think that Papa John’s situation (when Sanderson was cup tied) probably interrupted things with him at the start, but now through both his form and the injury situation, he’s had a real consistent run and done very, very well.

“From my side, it’s a very easy situation – keep trying to improve the player as much as possible. I think the player respects that in the end. I can’t really talk about anything other than his performances for Sunderland, which have been very, very good.”

Sanderson will be back alongside Luke O’Nien at the heart of the Black Cats’ back four when Oxford United visit the Stadium of Light this afternoon, with Wright and Flanagan still some way away from returning to the first-team fold.

Johnson is confident the defensive duo will play again this season, although Wright is yet to resume full training and Flanagan is continuing to struggle with hamstring and foot issues.

“I expect both to be back before the end of the season, for sure,” said the Black Cats boss. “If all goes to plan, Bailey is probably one week away from training with the players. We’ll look to get him in training with the boys next Friday, and at that point, we’ll have to assess what sort of minutes he needs.

“We’ll have to look at the game schedule with the Under-23s, and we may even arrange a game again so we can control the minutes within that.

“Flanno is a difficult one at the moment. He’s had two separate opinions on a foot injury and they’re both very different, which is very unusual with the specialists being top specialists. We need to know whether we’re going to have a third opinion on that.

“In the meantime, he’s nursing the hamstring, which is going very well. He was out running today, although that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s near a comeback.

“With Flanno, it’s a case of sorting out the foot issue, or deciding to play through the pain and sort out the foot issue in the summer, while nursing the hamstring and making sure that he comes back sharper than he did the last time.”

There is better news on the injury front with Jordan Jones, who will return to the squad today after missing the last four matches, and Denver Hume, who is pretty much back up to full speed after playing for 75 minutes of the Under-23s’ 3-0 win over Burnley on Monday.

“Jones is in a good place,” said Johnson. “He’s had three or four days training now, and feels good and looks sharp. He naturally will come back into the squad.

“Denver is not a million miles away now. There’s probably a decision to make over the next two games whether we reintroduce him. I’ll have a good chat with him, sometimes that positionally as well.”

Sunderland (probable, 4-3-3): Burge; McLaughlin, Sanderson, O’Nien, McFadzean; Power, Leadbitter, Winchester; O’Brien, Wyke, McGeady.