Jack Ross has revealed that forward Duncan Watmore has taken another step towards a return to first team action.
The 24-year-old has been sidelined since November after suffering a occurrence of a cruciate knee injury, but has stepped up his recovery this week as he targets a first team return.
Watmore, whose explosive pace quickly endeared him to the Black Cats' faithful, has joined in with most of first team training this week in what Ross described as a 'big step forward'.
Such a milestone in his recovery has provided a psychological boost for the attacker - but Ross is still resisting the temptation to hurry him back into first team action.
"He's joined in this week with me in just about all my sessions and we've tailored some of it to suit him," said the Sunderland boss, speaking at his pre-match press conference.
"It's another big step forward for him. Previous to that he'd been joining in with little bits and pieces but this week he's done more or less the same as everybody else, with the exception of a couple of little drills and work.
"He's getting ever closer and I think I said last week that there's a duty of care on us to make sure we don't rush him back.
"Psychologically it's another good week for him. He feels good, there's no reaction and I think that he believes he's in a better place this time then when he came back from the first injury.
"Having him back, he'll be a big asset for us and he's popular within the group. Mentally, for the group to see him back involved is another plus for us."
Along with summer signing Charlie Wyke, Watmore is the only long-term absentee at the Stadium of Light as the treatment list shortens after an injury-ravaged start to the season.
And while Watmore is unlikely to return imminently, Ross is hesitant to put a timescale on a return for the fans' favourite and believes that the forward is appreciating that approach.
The Sunderland manager feels that such an approach will benefit Watmore in the long-term and Ross is encouraged by what he has seen of his comeback so far.
"I've never done it because I've never wanted to do it or put pressure on him," said Ross, when asked about putting a date on his return.
"When he came back from the previous one there was probably a real need to get him back because of the way results were going. I'm not saying that it's because things are going well that we aren't rushing him back, but we have a duty of care on his career development.
"He's still a pretty young man and it's two tough injuries he's had. That takes a toll on you mentally and I think he's appreciated that approach, but the flip side of that is everything is pointing towards him being in a good place.
"Every external examination coupled with what we do internally suggests he's in a really strong place and that's why I'm happy for him.
"Even this week, we didn't know how much he'd get through so we just took it on a day-to-day basis but it's really encouraging signs for him."