Sunderland suffer major injury blow as ex-Leeds United defender out for three months
Sunderland have been dealt a major blow after Lee Johnson revealed that Niall Huggins will not play again this year.
The talented and versatile full back withdrew from Wales U21 duty earlier this month with a back complain, and subsequent tests have revealed that he has suffered the onset of a stress fracture.
Johnson expects him to be out for a minimum of three months.
Huggins has made a major impression in his four senior appearances since signing from Leeds United earlier this summer, and was particularly impressive in the 5-0 league win over Cheltenham Town.
Johnson admits it's a big blow for the 20-year-old, but says he will make sure the club use the time out to further his long-term development on Wearside.
“Niall Huggins is a bad one unfortunately, it’s bad news," Johnson said.
"He's going to be out for a minimum of three months.
“He’s got the onset of a fracture. He’s got a history of stress fractures and he’s got the onset of one so that’s a tough one to take especially for the lad. You feel for him because he’s done so well.
“He’s such a good player and he’s been set back like that so we’ll wrap around him, look after him and make sure that three months is spent doing something progressive for his future.
“We’ve give him a few days off. I didn’t want to patronise him, it’s part of football, it’s part of the game and he’s been through it before.
“We will see him. We will put our arm around him and make sure we look after him.
“He’s done really well. He’s long term, he’s got a big long contract, a four year one.
“I think that proves that he’s our type of player so in the big picture, it won’t seem like a long time but it will be painful for him at the moment having come in and done so well."
Johnson is also monitoring a number of injury doubts ahead of this weekend's trip to Gillingham.
Aiden McGeady and Lynden Gooch both missed the 4-0 defeat to Portsmouth at Fratton Park and while there are no medium or long-term concerns over the pair, it remains to be seen whether they will be fit to play this Saturday.
Johnson will also have to assess a raft of players who will return from international duty in the coming days.
One major positive is that Luke O'Nien is expected to be available.
O'Nien picked up a rib injury in the closing stages of the Papa John's Trophy win over Lincoln City last week, which had left Johnson regretting his decision to introduce him as a late substitute.
"Luke is alright, and I expect him to be fit and available to play on Saturday," he said.
"It was just bruising in the end rather than a fracture, so I've got away with one there.
"Aiden [McGeady] is probably touch and go for Saturday, Lynden Gooch is progressing well.
"Nathan Broadhead isn't a million miles away, he's not in pain and is out running, but it's just controlled at the moment."
Team captain Corry Evans is also expected to be absent this weekend, having joined Huggins in withdrawing from international duty.
Evans has suffered a calf problem and though Johnson is confident that there will be no long-term issues, he admits that the experienced midfielder is still suffering from joining late in the pre-season programme.
The head coach is therefore determined to be patient with the 31-year-old, and it seems likely that Dan Neil will return to the side this weekend.
"Corry Evans is a tricky one," Johnson said.
"He's presenting well but I'm holding him back at the moment because along with the medical team, we just think it's closer to three weeks [out] as he had a calf tear.
"It's a good sign that he's presenting well but at the same time, we want to have him fit for the course of the season.
"I think the lack of a real pre-season is playing a part.
"It was difficult because, we wouldn't have got Corry Evans on day one of pre-season, because there were too many Championship sides interested in him.
"We had to stand in the queue, and obviously it's not the same training on your own as it is in a team," he added,
"He worked hard, and put the work in, but it's not the same.
"The good thing is his fitness is there, we've just got to get rid of these little niggles.
"It was maybe my fault on this occasion in terms of playing him again at Portsmouth after the Cheltenham game, but at some point you've got to go with these guys.
"We're not far off being really strong, we're just chasing it with three our four.
"For the most part we're talking one to three weeks.
"We’ll have plenty to consider ahead of the weekend.
"You’ve got Bailey Wright coming back from Japan, Tom Flanagan has played on Tuesday night. Callum Doyle has come off with cramp in the last minute, so I haven’t picked a team yet because I’ll need to take a look at everyone and see where we are."
Denver Hume stepped up his comeback with injury by playing another 70 minutes in the 2-1 win over Manchester United U21s on Tuesday night, which secured Sunderland’s place in the knockout rounds of the Papa John’s Trophy with a game of the group stage still to play.