WAYNE Bridge’s full Sunderland debut is being delayed by the lessons of history.
Bridge played eight minutes with last Wednesday’s match against Norwich City already won and was an unused substitute in the snow at Stoke City at the weekend.
The on-loan 31-year-old is desperately short of match practice, having only played 78 minutes of first-team football for Manchester City this season – in September’s League Cup win over Championship side Birmingham City.
His parent club have pulled out of the reserve league, so his only other competitive football there was two games in the Manchester Senior Cup and one in the Lancashire version.
As the only specialist left-back at the Stadium of Light, Bridge is likely to play an important part in the remainder of the season
However, Black Cats manager Martin O’Neill is conscious of his early struggles at West Ham United last term.
Then the former England defender boasted seven first-team matches under his belt (only one in the Premier League).
Three days after joining the Hammers on another half-season loan, Bridge looked badly under-prepared for his debut at home to Arsenal.
The full-back was culpable for all three goals that night and ultimately proved unable to help save the Hammers from relegation.
He allowed Theo Walcott space to pick out Robin van Persie for the first, played the Dutchman onside to return the compliment and then brought down Walcott for van Persie to round off the victory with a penalty.
That televised game has featured heavily in O’Neill’s approach 12 months on.
He said of Bridge: “He is just settling down. I am mindful he was thrown in at the deep end last year. At West Ham it was thrust upon him.
“I would like him to see the surroundings a bit more.
“It was pleasing to get into the Norwich game, that was encouraging enough for him.”
O’Neill is fortunate Sunderland’s form allows him to take his time integrating new faces.
If his team plays well then – fitness permitting – the 11 tend to keep their place for the next match.
Although that has been a rare luxury amid the sort of injury problems which so hampered his managerial predecessor Steve Bruce, O’Neill has steered Sunderland to 22 points from his ten Premier League games.
A run of five wins from the last six matches has taken them to eighth in the table.
The Black Cats’ other January addition, on-loan central defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos, did not join in time to face Norwich and was also held back for the 1-0 win at Stoke City.
Kieran Richardson performed admirably in extremely difficult conditions at the Britannia Stadium, but his versatility will give O’Neill more options if and when Bridge comes into the side.
O’Neill added: “It is about players getting in on merit and if he (Bridge) can adjust into that position it means we can move Kieran around.”
Midfielder Craig Gardner has also demonstrated his versatility this season, filling in at right-back at the turn of the year.
At Stoke he was given the job of supporting lone striker Stéphane Sessègnon and, when the Benin international’s wanderlust got the better of him at times, was prepared to push furthest forward and turn his back to goal.
Signed from Birmingham City in the summer, the former Aston Villa player struggled under Bruce, held back by homesickness.
With strong competition in Sunderland’s central midfield, Gardner is not yet a regular starter but O’Neill believes his talents are appreciated across the club.
He said: “He hs had a problem but the crowd really like him. He is settling down, we will see what happens.
“I understand how he feels, I know the lad from my time at Villa. He is a heck of a lad, he really is, very popular in the dressing room too.
“We are delighted the transfer deadline passed and he is still with us.”