'Really difficult' - Sunderland boss Lee Johnson explains Aiden O'Brien call

Lee Johnson insists his preferred Sunderland XI is far from settled.

Aiden O'Brien came close to a loan move on deadline day
Aiden O'Brien came close to a loan move on deadline day

Johnson has made few changes through the course of the campaign to a side that sits top of the table, with only injury and the arrival of new signings leading to any substantive changes.

The Sunderland head coach will have to make at least one change at Fleetwood Town this Saturday, with Tom Flanagan suspended.

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The Northern Ireland international has started every league game of the season alongside Callum Doyle.

That will open the door for either Bailey Wright or West Ham United loanee Frederik Alves, and Johnson says a training game at the Academy of Light last Friday underlined that no one can feel sure of their place.

"I genuinely don't look at it as our first XI," Johnson said.

"If you'd had come into training on Friday and seen the two teams going against each other, you wouldn't have been sure which one was the starting XI for Saturday.

"You've got Bailey Wright and Frederik Alves in defence, Corry Evans in midfield.

Niall Huggins and Denver Hume, Alex Pritchard as your number ten, Aiden O'Brien and Leon Dajaku out wide with Nathan Broadhead up top.

"That is a very strong side itself.

"So for us it's just about building the performances from here."

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Johnson also insisted that Aiden O'Brien remains very much part of his plans, even if the prospect of the Irishman gaining significant league minutes looks remote in the immediate future.

O'Brien, who scored a hat-trick in the Carabao Cup on his last competitive start, was left out of the matchday squad as Sunderland beat Accrington Stanley 2-1 on Saturday.

Johnson still has Leon Dajaku and Denver Hume to come into contention for selection, with Dajaku expected to push for inclusion in the squad this weekend.

O'Brien was offered the chance to move to Doncaster Rovers on loan, but the potential deadline-day switch fell through as the Black Cats were unable to complete the paperwork on time.

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The forward’s decision to pursue the switch was informed by Johnson's honest admission about his likely playing time in the coming weeks.

Nevertheless, Johnson says he is 'delighted' the 27-year-old is still at the club and insists he can still have a part to play.

That training game underlined why selection and squad management will be one of his biggest challenges in the coming weeks.

“Really difficult," he said.

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"It’s probably the hardest part of the job.

“You don’t want to be the big bad wolf. You want the relationship with the players and it’s human nature to want to play.

“You try and give clarity. You try and be as honest and open from the start which is obviously why Aiden (O’Brien) was effectively offered a loan but at the same time I’m delighted he’s stayed in.

“So it was always going to be a short term thing for one sense for Aiden because I need to know what I’ve got. I need to give players the opportunity to see what we’ve got and therefore in like ten or twelve games time, we’ll be able to make decisions about what is truly that first eleven."