SUNDERLAND have been rocked by confirmation that Jordan Willis faces up to a year on the sidelines after having to undergo a second bout of knee surgery.

Willis damaged his knee ligaments in early February and was forced to have an operation that brought his season to a premature end.

However, he has experienced further post-surgical complications, and a consultation with a specialist resulted in him being second for a second operation.

He is expected to be sidelined for between nine and 12 months, ruling him out of the first half of next season and potentially meaning he will struggle to have much involvement at all next term.

While his contract was previously due to have expired this summer, Sunderland had already agreed an extension that means he is contracted to the club until June 2022.

“First and foremost, we are here for Jordan on a human level,” said Black Cats boss Lee Johnson. “If he needs to reach out to any one of us, we will help him as much as we possibly can.

“On a professional level, we are gutted because of what a good player he is and what he brings to the squad – on and off the pitch – in terms of personality and performance. We will support him in any way we can to get him back to his pomp as soon as possible.”

While Willis’ latest setback is a major blow, Conor McLaughlin could return to the squad for Saturday’s game at Plymouth Argyle, with Johnson also increasingly confident that Tom Flanagan will be available for the play-offs.

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 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 good,” said Johnson. “He’s not quite ready to join in with the boys yet, but he looks like he’s moving well. He’s holding himself a lot happier, more confident in himself. Conor has been amazing in terms of his progression with this one compared to the last hernia operation. He could be involved this weekend."