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O'Neill: Bramble still has time to realise his potential
MARTIN O'Neill claims it is still not too late for Sunderland centre-half Titus Bramble to develop into the “top-class defender” Sir Bobby Robson always felt he would become.
Bramble will make his first Premier League start of the season at West Ham tomorrow as he deputises for Carlos Cuellar, who sustained a hamstring injury in last weekend's draw with Liverpool.
The 31-year-old, who recently entered the final year of his contract at the Stadium of Light, has failed to live up to the lofty expectations that accompanied him as he embarked on his top-flight career with Newcastle United in 2002.
Back then, Robson regarded the defender as one of the brightest domestic prospects he had worked with and predicted international honours as well as a lengthy stay at the very pinnacle of the game.
The reality has been somewhat different, with Bramble struggling to hold down a starting spot for first Newcastle and now Sunderland, but O'Neill insists there is still time for him to live up to his enduring potential.
“Until I got here, I didn't quite realise how much potential he has,” said the Sunderland boss. “I remember Sir Bobby Robson speaking about him years ago. Sir Bobby would wax lyrical about this young kid and I can see why.
“I can see those things with Titus, but his major problem is staying fit. I just hope he can stay injury-free because if he can, not only will he be challenging for a place in the team, he's very capable of stepping in and making the centre-half position his own.”
Injuries have hampered Bramble throughout his career, but the problem has become more pronounced since he joined Sunderland two summers ago.
A succession of knee niggles have been the major factor behind a disappointing record of just 30 league starts, while a thigh injury sidelined him for almost all of the second half of last season.
There have been off-field controversies to contend with as well – most notably the allegation of sexual assault that was disproved in a high-profile court case earlier this year – but as he battles to prove he deserves a new contract, the hope is that Bramble will finally enjoy a sustained run in the first team free of injuries and distractions.
“I can only judge Titus from my time here,” said O'Neill. “I thought he might be a bit wayward because he's had one or two problems off the field, but he's as good a lad as there is. I'm delighted things went in his favour (with the court case) as he always maintained they would. That was a relief for him, but the fitness aspect is still an issue.
“Over his career here, he has shown that he's a proper centre-half, but the injuries have niggled away at him. Last season, he limped off against Everton on Boxing Day, and if you'd told me then that we wouldn't see him again until the last day of the season, I wouldn't have believed you.
“As you get older, it's harder to shake the injuries off, and he's not 22 any more. Time catches up on us all, but with Carlos being out, it's very good to have him.”
Danny Rose has been passed fit to line up at Upton Park, but a decision on Adam Johnson 's participation will be delayed until the last possible moment.
Johnson injured his thigh while on international duty with England, and missed last weekend's game after complaining of pain in training. He was back on the training ground yesterday, and will be assessed by the medical staff this morning.
“The extra week should have helped, but I can't be certain (that he'll play),” said O'Neill. “I don't want to risk him if there's the slightest doubt, but the medical people are pretty happy with his progress. If Adam's feeling pretty good, he obviously comes into contention. If he doesn't, then we just have to leave it.”
James McFadden also took part in yesterday's training session, but there will be no decision on the 29-year-old's future until the start of next week at the earliest.
McFadden is a free agent following his release from Everton at the end of last season and had been training with Motherwell, but O'Neill believes he could still have something to offer at Premier League level.
“It's very open-ended at the minute and we haven't really had a proper discussion about it,” he said. “The current arrangement suits us both. He's enjoying it, but it's too early to make a decision.
“He is a very decent footballer. He was allowed to leave Everton because they obviously felt they had enough in those forward positions to think he wouldn't figure. We have a smaller squad so he is definitely worth looking at.”