SUNDERLAND defender Dennis Cirkin has made a return to training with the first-team squad as he steps up his recovery from a hamstring injury.

The 20-year-old has been out of action since the 1-0 defeat to Middlesbrough where he was forced off in the second half at the Riverside Stadium and has since missed the win over Reading and the draw at Watford on the road.

Cirkin’s potential return will give Sunderland a huge boost ahead of this weekend’s return to Championship action against Preston North End. However, Aji Alese has filled in on the left side of defence and has impressed head coach Tony Mowbray. He scored in the Black Cats’s 2-2 draw at Vicarage Road before the international break.

Mowbray said: “Dennis Cirkin was back on the grass today (Monday) which was great. There is competition because of Aji Alese’s performance, in a couple of games he’s played, has been fantastic. It’s all encouraging at the moment.”

Whilst there was encouraging news in the defensive department, Sunderland may well restart their Championship campaign without a fit striker with Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms continuing their rehabilitation from respective injuries.

Stewart is not expected back for a number of weeks while Simms is being assessed at the Academy of Light after limping off in the first half of their 3-0 win over Reading.

Centre half Dan Ballard is also working his way back from a fractured foot while full-back Niall Huggins has been battling his way back from a long standing back problem.

While there is competition for places in the Sunderland side, Mowbray admits that they need more options at their disposal as he continued: “As I walk around the building sometimes, I see Dan Ballard and he’s ducking under doors. He is a monster of a boy.

“We need to deepen the squad off by Ross (Stewart) and Ellis (Simms) getting fit but also big Dan Ballard and Niall Huggins. Players that can make the squad more competitive with everybody fighting for their place.”

Sunderland currently sit fifth in the Championship table while this weekend’s opponents Preston North End sit in the bottom half in 15th but are just three points behind the Black Cats.