JOSH MAJA has returned to full training this week, with Sunderland boss Simon Grayson hoping the youngster’s recovery from a knee problem will significantly enhance his side’s attacking options.

Maja scored four goals in six games at the start of Sunderland’s pre-season programme this summer, and had been earmarked for a place in the senior squad for the opening weeks of the Championship campaign.

However, he damaged his knee in the pre-season game at Bradford, and was forced to undergo surgery to repair the problem when it failed to heal on its own.

That extended his lay-off by more than four weeks, but after spending more than two months on the sidelines, the 18-year-old was given the green light to return to training during the ongoing international break.

Like Duncan Watmore and Paddy McNair, he will not be rushed back into first-team action, but with Sunderland short of attacking options in the absence of the injured Lewis Grabban, his impending availability could provide a timely boost.

“It was a big blow for the lad because he’d waited patiently for his opportunity, worked hard in pre-season and looked very good,” said Grayson, whose side will return to action when they host QPR this weekend. “He looked strong and powerful, but something out of nothing, he suffered the knee injury.

“It was a big disappointment for him as a person, and ultimately for us as a team, especially when we were lacking a bit at the top end of the pitch.

“When we get them all back, there’ll be some great competition and they’ll all be fighting for that starting position. It’ll also mean that when I look to the bench, whoever is on it, I’ll be able to say, ‘You can go and change the game’. Maybe over the last few weeks, we’ve not had that.”

Watmore could find himself back in the senior starting line-up this weekend, having produced an eye-catching performance from the substitutes’ bench in the 2-2 draw with Preston that preceded the international break, and McNair is not too far away from a first-team return either having been pencilled in for an appearance in this evening's development-team game with Hertha Berlin.

The pair have stepped up their training markedly in the last few days, and Grayson has also used the international hiatus to improve the fitness of some of Sunderland’s signings from the final week of the transfer window.

“We’ve (had) seven or eight away on international duty, but there’s one or two lads who have had niggles and it’s allowed them to get those sorted,” he said. “It’s allowed us to get some extra fitness work into the likes of Callum McManaman, and some of the other lads coming back from injury as well – Duncan, Paddy, and Josh, who is back training with us as well now.

“We’ve had a few days off as well, so it’s been the right balance. It isn’t until Thursday that we’ll get everybody back from international duty, then we’ll take stock and analyse who is available and who isn’t.”

Grabban will not be available for this weekend’s game, but the Bournemouth loanee continues to make steady progress as he recovers from a hamstring tear.

“He (Grabban) is working well with the physios,” said Grayson, in an interview with Sunderland's official website. “It’s a procedure we’re going through, we don’t rush any player back so we have them for the long term not the short term. But he’s making good progress, and I’m sure he’ll be back in a red-and-white shirt very soon.”

Sunderland’s performance at Preston represented a marked improvement on their previous showing at Ipswich, and Grayson is hoping his side take another step forward when they return to home soil on Saturday.

Remarkably, the Black Cats have still not recorded a victory at the Stadium of Light in the whole of 2017, a record that is rightly regarded as an acute embarrassment.

QPR have not claimed an away win this season, and have won just one of their last eight games in all competitions, so Saturday’s game should provide an ideal opportunity for Sunderland to end their wretched run.

“We want to build off the performance at Preston where we played very well,” said Grayson. “I thought the team worked very hard, and we could have got the win we would have deserved.

“We could have had a penalty late on, but we gave a good team a good game. We have to benefit from that, build on that performance, and ultimately break this hoodoo that everybody will be talking about until we break it.

“There’s no better opportunity than this weekend against QPR. It’ll be a tough test for us with Ian Holloway in charge, but we want to get back to winning ways very quickly.”