CONOR McLAUGHLIN could return to the Sunderland squad for Saturday’s game at Plymouth Argyle – with Lee Johnson increasingly confident that Tom Flanagan will also be available for the play-offs.

The Black Cats will guarantee their place in the play-offs if they win at Home Park this weekend, but even if their winless run was to extend beyond the weekend, the five-point gap currently separating Sunderland from seventh position means it would still take a remarkable series of results for them to miss out on finishing in the top six.

Both McLaughlin and Flanagan have been absent with long-term injury issues – the former has suffered two hernia problems, while the latter has been struggling with foot and hamstring concerns – and with Jordan Willis, Dion Sanderson and Arbenit Xhemajli also unavailable, Johnson has found his defensive options severely limited in the last few weeks.

McLaughlin is in contention for a place in the squad this weekend, while Flanagan should step up his work on the training ground before the end of the week.

“Flanno is looking quite good,” said Johnson. “He’s not quite ready to join in with the boys yet, but certainly he looks like he’s moving well. He’s holding himself a lot happier, he’s a lot more confident in himself.

“Conor has been amazing really in terms of his progression with this one compared to the last hernia operation he had. He potentially could be involved this weekend, if we need him to be, which I think is a real positive.”

A couple of players suffered knocks during last night’s defeat to Blackpool, and Johnson admits their situation is causing him a headache when it comes to his team selection for the Plymouth game.

In an ideal world, he would not want to take any risks that might endanger anyone’s availability for the play-offs. However, given that Sunderland are still to guarantee their position in the end-of-season shootout, there is still a need to secure a positive result at the weekend.

“We’ve got a couple of other considerations for the game this weekend, although I don’t really want to reveal too much at the moment,” said Johnson. “There’s a couple where we’ll have to see how they recover. It’s a couple of niggles from the game (against Blackpool), and it’s difficult.

“If you guaranteed me a ticket for the play-offs, then there’s a couple that I wouldn’t play – and they’re good players. Potentially, they may be ruled out anyway, but that balance is a very difficult one to strike given that knife-edge that we’re on at the moment.”