During the recent match against Arsenal at the Stadium of Light, we witnessed the removal of Lee Cattermole at half time before watching Danny Rose limp off midway through the second half. Two vital players who have missed too much of this season through injury, Cattermole in particular, had seemingly been rushed back into the side and not for the first time. This compounded a frustrating loss and left some fans wondering why the pair have had such stop start seasons.
The Rose situation has reached a point where Spurs no longer want Sunderland to take any further risks with their investment and he was returned to North London to be assessed by their medical team. It was not a particularly surprising turn of events given the amounts of money involved in football these days but it does leave a question mark over the club's handling of Rose's injury problems this season.
These two players and their recurrent injuries have led to some supporters levelling accusations at O'Neill of following in the footsteps of his predecessor in the Sunderland hot seat, Steve Bruce, as a man who rushes players back into the team when they are not quite ready. When you consider the importance to the side of both Rose and Cattermole, it is obvious why O'Neill would be eager to have them back in the side and as such it's easy to understand this viewpoint. Understandable, maybe, but not correct in my opinion.
Bruce admitted during a disastrous run at the end of the 2010/11 season that he was forced to bring players back rather too hastily as he didn't have a squad big enough to allow him to "shuffle the pack" as much as he'd have liked. A number of players suffered injury recurrences, including David Meyler, who was stretchered off at Aston Villa in January 2011 after returning to the side quicker than expected in the December against Fulham. He suffered a relapse of a cruciate ligament injury at Villa Park and would spend months on the sidelines. Fraizer Campbell made it as far as a training session in which he fell and twisted his knee, causing a repeat of a previous injury, which he had not fully recovered from. Titus Bramble was also hurried back into the side following an operation and having failed to recover properly ended the season suffering with injury.
Eventually the injury crisis at the club became an excuse for the former Manchester Utd defender, which simply masked other failings. It's also difficult to trust exactly what Bruce said, as on the one hand he talked about bringing players back too quickly, whilst also saying the likes of Meyler would not be returned to the side unless they were ready. Ignoring the words of the man himself, it leaves you to wonder what type of advice he was receiving from those in charge of assisting players with their recovery and rehabilitation.
It's interesting to note that the same medical team that operated at the club during Bruce's tenure remain here under O'Neill. It is typical for a manager to bring his own backroom staff to a club when he takes over and this was no different on Wearside when the Northern Irishman took over from his Geordie predecessor, but given the injury problems at the club in recent seasons, it was perhaps surprising that there wasn't a shake up amongst the medical staff.
A closer look at the situation reveals that the medical staff have formed something of a backbone to the club throughout the last decade. The Rehab Physio has been here since 2002, while the Head of Medical Department has been around since 2005. It'd be interesting to know what their role is in advising the manager on whether a player is ready to return or not. Ultimately, it is the manager's decision, but surely they act in accordance with the advice of the medical team who are responsible for the long term physical health of the players.
As well as the physios, there are also the players themselves to consider. They cannot be totally absolved of blame either. Cattermole and Rose are both enthusiastic lads who clearly love being on a football pitch. If the medical staff were to give a tentative green light and O'Neill asked the players how they were feeling, I've little doubt they'd be prepared to go out there and play even if they weren't being totally honest with themselves about their fitness. Similar could be said of Meyler and Campbell, who after long spells out would have been desperate to get back on the football pitch.
Injuries happen in football and sometimes players are just unlucky that they suffer them more than others. When it happens repeatedly and under different managers, then it is natural to question the medical staff as well as the players themselves. If change is needed, perhaps it is the culture at the club rather than the personnel. The long term physical health of players should come before any short term gain, which means staff - including the manager - need to think twice before giving the go ahead for players to return to the side. One thing is certain though, things are nowhere near as bad as they were under Bruce.