SIMON GRAYSON claims John O’Shea’s “leadership qualities” will be crucial to Sunderland’s hopes of climbing the Championship table in the next few weeks, and has cited the Irishman’s communication skills as the key reason why he was preferred to Lamine Kone in the Black Cats’ most recent outing at Preston.

O’Shea made his first league start of the season as Sunderland drew 2-2 at Deepdale prior to the international break, and the 36-year-old is set to retain his place in the starting line-up for tomorrow’s home game with QPR.

O’Shea played alongside Everton loanee Tyias Browning at Preston, and having watched his side concede five goals at Ipswich Town in their previous outing, Grayson felt it was imperative to add some organisational nous to his back four.

He will not be selecting O’Shea in every game, even though the fixture list is much less onerous in the next couple of months with a reduction in the number of midweek matches, but for the foreseeable future, the veteran centre-half’s experience will continue to be a valuable asset.

“I looked at the situation, and I just felt his experience and vocal capacity would help the players alongside him, like Tyias who we felt has played well since he’s been at the club,” said Grayson, who will be looking to guide Sunderland to their first home win of 2017 tomorrow.

“John’s got experience and leadership qualities – you don’t play for Manchester United, your country and this club for the number of years he has unless you’re a good character, and we just felt we had to have experienced players in that team to help us through. I think John showed what a good player he is and what he can still add to this team.”

O’Shea’s promotion to the starting line-up came at the expense of Kone, but Grayson insists his selection decision was not an attempt to make the Ivorian centre-half the fall guy for Sunderland insipid defending at Ipswich.

Having started the season reasonably strongly, Kone’s form has dipped dramatically in recent weeks. A cynic might suggest it is hardly a coincidence that his performances have nosedived after he was unable to force through a move away from Wearside in the transfer window, but Grayson is adamant it is not as clear-cut as that.

He has defended Kone’s performance at Portman Road despite Sunderland having shipped five goals, but admits he felt compelled to leave the 28-year-old out of his team in an attempt to shore up his side’s leaky rear-guard.

“I wouldn’t say he’s struggling in terms of making a huge amount of mistakes, it’s just a general problem we’ve got as a team,” said Grayson. “When you look at the goals we’ve conceded, I wouldn’t say that Lamine’s really been to blame for too many, but we have to be better as a  group – as a back four and the players in front of them – to deny the opposition opportunities and basically to keep that ball away from our 18-yard box. That will give everyone a better opportunity.”

Grayson is expected to name Duncan Watmore in his starting line-up for tomorrow’s game, with the winger having produced an eye-catching cameo off the substitutes’ bench at Preston.

It will be interesting to see whether the former England Under-21 international starts in a wide position or in a ‘number ten’ role, but either way, his return to the starting side should enhance Sunderland’s attacking threat.

Paddy McNair has also returned to action after recovering from cruciate knee ligament surgery, but while the midfielder came through 45 minutes of this week’s Under-23s game with Hertha Berlin without any problems, he will not be risked tomorrow.

Earlier this week, Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill admitted he did not expect McNair to be available for his nation’s World Cup play-off games, but Grayson claims there is still a chance he could force himself into contention for next month’s double-header.

“He won’t be far away, but he’ll be short of game time,” said the Sunderland boss. “The attitude with Paddy is that we’ve got to be very careful not to rush him back. He’ll play on Monday at Arsenal (for the Under-23s), then possibly at Everton on the Friday when there’s another (under-)23s game.

“Grimsby (in the Checkatrade Trophy) is just before the international weekend, so I don’t know. It’ll be touch and go, but it will certainly be a positive boost for him if he’s to be around it. But it’s a tough ask when you’ve been out for ten months to be back that quickly.”