WAYNE Bridge is set to make his first Sunderland start against Liverpool this afternoon.
Having played so little in the past two seasons, manager Martin O’Neill thinks the left-back will see today’s opportunity as “a bonus”.
O’Neill is set to play it safe with Kieran Richardson, despite an X-ray on his calf this week showing no major problems. Bridge is set to replace him, as he did off the bench in the last two games at West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United.
For a 31-year-old who was once in a straight fight with Ashley Cole to be England’s left-back, the bit-part role is something of a come-down. But O’Neill says the man on loan until the end of the season does not view it that way.
“Any game he plays here is going to be a bonus for him – he wouldn’t have been involved at all at Manchester City,” said the Ulsterman. “He’s never said to me he expects to play. He’s hoping to.
“He wasn’t going to be playing for Manchester City so it gave him a new lease of life and different environment coming here. If you’re not in the first team you often train at a different time, so for him to be involved with the (Sunderland) first team and around the dressing room is great.
“He’s never moaned to me. He under-stands the team has been doing well, but he wants to be involved.”
When he signed for Sunderland on deadline day in January, Bridge had made only eight Manchester City appearances in 18 months – mostly for weakened teams in cup competitions.
He also had a six-month loan at West Ham United which ended in relegation.
This season, City’s absence from the reserve-team league means Bridge has barely had any second-string football. His only first-team outing came in the League Cup in September. Since moving to the Black Cats he has made three substitute appearances totaling 44 minutes.
He should perhaps count himself lucky – fellow Sunderland loan signing Sotirios Kyrgiakos is yet to feature at all, and with John O’Shea set to play with protection around his broken hand today, the Greek centre-back’s prospects of facing former club Liverpool look bleak.
The versatile Richardson has played the last 11 games at left-back. He seems likely to be rested as a precaution with an FA Cup quarter-final at Everton next week.
“The x-rays have been pretty decent, nothing long-term or anything like that, but he’s just feeling it a little bit,” O’Neill explained. “He’s worked with the physio, not us so, he’d be unlikely to play.”
With Lee Cattermole and Stéphane Sessègnon suspended after their red cards in the Tyne-Wear derby, more changes will be necessary.
David Vaughan returned to fitness with Wales last week, and will compete with Jack Colback for the right to partner Craig Gardner in midfield.
In Sessègnon’s absence, strikers Nicklas Bendtner and Fraizer Campbell could play together for the first time.
“I see no reason why good players can’t play alongside each other,” said O’Neill. “I’ve never really understood that. If you’re a good enough player you can play with or without anybody. This is a partnership that for injury reasons which hasn’t yet got together. It’s not had any chance of developing or flourishing.
“We’ll try and conjure something up but I don’t see why it shouldn’t work. We’ll have a look at other things as well.”
Of Cattermole’s red card, for foul and abusive language after the final whistle, O’Neill said: “It’s really disappointing and we will take the cost of that.
“It’s disappointing because Sess hasn’t missed a game all season and now he’ll miss three. He’s apologised for his reaction.”
Meanwhile, Sunderland will play two matches in the Peace Cup South Korea this July. K-League side Seongnam and Bundesliga outfit Hamburg will also take part in the competition at the Suwon World Cup Stadium.
The games are provisionally scheduled for Thursday, July 19 and Sunday July 22.