O’Neill: Black Cats will battle on

Derby’s James O’Connor made his return from a knee injury with a

run out for the club’s development side on Tuesday.

O’Connor, 28, has been sidelined since the end of January after

damaging ligaments in training.

The versatile defender played the full 90 minutes on Tuesday as

the Rams’ Under-21 side lost 2-1 to Coventry at Pride Park.

O’Connor, signed from Doncaster last summer, is a right-back by

trade but his best performances for Derby have been at centre-back

and he has also starred at left-back for Nigel Clough’s side.

The Black Cats confirmed on Wednesday that skipper Lee

Cattermole will not play again this season after undergoing knee

surgery, while leading scorer Steven Fletcher will also sit out the

remainder if the campaign with ankle ligament damage.

O’Neill said: “The injury to Cattermole, really we have foreseen

that one for some time, and the injury to Fletcher is a blow to us,

but we have got to get on with it.”

The loss of two key men could hardly have come at a worse time

for Sunderland, who head into the final eight games of the season

without a win in seven outings and sitting just four points clear

of the drop zone ahead of Saturday’s home clash with

champions-elect Manchester United.

Asked if it was tough to take, O’Neill said: “Of course, but

it’s the nature of the game and you get these things during the

course of a season.

“What you have to do is be as prepared as possible for that

eventuality and deal with it.”

Fletcher was hurt on international duty with Scotland, and

club-mate David Vaughan returned early from the Wales camp with a

groin problem.

Vaughan, along with Stephane Sessegnon, who did not meet up with

Benin because of a minor injury, is being assessed, while defender

Carlos Cuellar remains a doubt for the weekend with an ankle

injury.