Poyet to play safe with Fletcher
Sunderland boss Gus Poyet will take no risks with striker Steven Fletcher as he primes him to fire the club out of trouble.
The 26-year-old set the Black Cats on the way to a 2-1 derby victory over Newcastle - their first in the Barclays Premier League this season - last Sunday with a fifth-minute opener which underlined both his potency and his importance to the Uruguayan's rescue mission.
That strike took the £12million man's tally on Wearside to 13 goals in 33 league appearances since his move from Wolves during the summer of 2012, a return which serves to illustrate just how much he was missed during lay-offs for ankle and shoulder injuries.
Poyet has taken little time to realise how central Fletcher is to his masterplan and as a result, is desperate to strike a balance between getting the most out of him while at the same time protecting him.
He said: "Listen, when the top scorers in your team are fit, it's perfection, I would say because in football, you know you need to keep players fit.
"When I signed my contract here, there was a question mark about Fletch to be fit or not in the next few weeks, and then he has played every game for me.
"We are trying to make sure that we use him as much as we can, but at the same time, we keep him fit so we don't lose him for a while.
"The understanding and the communication has been great so he knows how important he is for us, but at the same time, how we need to be looking after him in the right way."
Fletcher's injury problems coupled with Sunderland's parlous situation - they remain four points adrift of safety - have meant chances to forge a partnership with £6million summer signing Jozy Altidore have been few and far between.
The Scot and the 23-year-old United States international had a rare opportunity to play together from the start against the Magpies and although their double-act remains in its infancy, Altidore has already seen promising signs.
He said: "He frees up space for me to do other things, and vice-versa. We can only create more and more opportunities if we get the chance to play together.
"But also, we have [Fabio] Borini, who is also very good, [Connor] Wickham, Ji [Dong-won], so we have a lot of players who can play up front.
"Of course I want to play, but at the same time, this is football and any part I have to play in the club, I am prepared to play it."
Whether or not the pair will link up once again at Hull on Saturday remains to be seen, but Altidore will hope for a chance to line-up against the club which gave him his first chance in English football.
The New Jersey-born frontman spent the 2009-10 season on loan at the KC Stadium in what proved to be something of a baptism of fire as the Tigers were relegated from the top flight.
Altidore appeared as a substitute in a 4-1 defeat at Sunderland in September 2009, but started the reverse fixture in the following April, only to depart early along with Black Cats defender Alan Hutton after both were sent off after an off-the-ball clash in a 1-0 win for the visitors.
He admitted: "I remember it, I remember that game. I got a red card I didn't even know about. I didn't even know what I was doing in the moment."
Altidore will head for Humberside still awaiting his first league goal in a red and white shirt, but insisting he is not concerned by a drought which currently extends to eight appearances.
He said: "I feel like I have been unlucky a little bit and I know that if I keep getting the chances, I am going to score, so I am not really worried about it."
The Black Cats have confirmed that Wickham has returned to Sheffield Wednesday for a second loan spell.
The 20-year-old striker spent time with the Championship side last season, making six appearances and scoring once.
Wickham will remain with Wednesday until January 1 and could make his second debut for the Owls against Reading this weekend.
The England Under-21 international joined Sunderland from Ipswich in June 2011 and has made 40 appearances for the club.