SIMON GRAYSON has hit back at criticism of Lamine Kone’s commitment, and insisted the centre-half is fully focused on Sunderland rather than looking to engineer a move away from the Stadium of Light.

Kone is set to return to the Black Cats’ starting line-up at Brentford this afternoon, having missed last Saturday’s 1-1 draw with QPR because of an illness. Eyebrows were raised when the Ivory Coast international was unavailable seven days ago, but Grayson is adamant the sickness problem was a genuine ailment.

Kone underperformed badly as Sunderland were relegated from the Premier League last season, with his form failing to recover after he was denied a pre-season move to Everton.

He started the current campaign reasonably impressively, but again his standards have dipped since a potential summer move away from Wearside failed to materialise. That has led some supporters to question his commitment to the cause, but Grayson is adamant the 28-year-old is giving his all and is not already eyeing a January transfer.

“I’ve had a discussion with members of staff who were here last year,” said the Sunderland boss, whose only league win since taking over at the Stadium of Light came in the second game of the season at Norwich. “They’ve said that when Lamine first came, he was totally committed, his eyes were always glued on the coaching staff and he was always wanting to learn and improve.

“He probably then lost his way after the Everton situation, but they’re telling me, and I’ve seen nothing to suggest otherwise, that he’s got that same enthusiasm and same focus now that he had when he first came to the club.

“When I speak to him, he enjoys being here, and likes working with us. He likes what we’re doing, so I don’t think he’s any less committed. It’s easy for people to point the finger. There have been stages where accusations have flown around, that he maybe dropped out of games last year. It’s easy to see why last weekend people questioned why an illness suddenly appeared, but it was because the doctor went to look at him and he wasn’t well.”

Just over 18 months ago, Sunderland rejected an Everton bid of around £18m for Kone, a price tag that is hardly commensurate with the standard of his recent displays.

Similarly, while Didier Ndong might still be Sunderland’s club-record signing after a £13.6m move from Lorient, the French midfielder is hardly playing like someone who could command an eight-figure fee.

The pair should be two of the stand-out players in the Championship, but their performances over the last month or so barely justify their place in the Sunderland team, let alone selection for an all-star Football League XI.

Grayson accepts the pair have not been at their best this season, but claims it would be unfair to spend too much time reflecting on their previous value. They might have been worth a combined figure of around £30m in the past, but that is irrelevant when Sunderland are scrapping in the Championship relegation zone.

“Everybody makes comparisons with what has happened in the past, what you’ve been bought for or what you could have been sold for,” said Grayson. “But ultimately those two players are as committed as the players that we’ve brought in on free transfers. I can assure you they care about the club.

“They’re two players who I’ve probably had more conversations with than most of the rest of the team because of the burden of expectation that’s on them. It’s never easy being in a foreign country, and not having too many family and friends around you. You have to look after them to get them settled off the field. Ultimately, that results in performances on the pitch. I keep reassuring them that I like what they’re doing, and they will help us get better.”

Grayson attended an event for Sunderland’s corporate supporters on Thursday evening, and while the mood was hardly euphoric, he maintains it is important to remain a visible presence despite the club’s wretched recent run.

When he agreed to replace David Moyes, he stressed the need to start reengaging with the fan base. That process is clearly easier if the team is winning, but the Bedale-born boss is adamant he will not be hiding away no matter what happens in the next few weeks.

“I’m not going to shy away and stay out of people’s way because it’s not my nature,” he said. “I’m prepared to answer anything that people want to throw at me. All I’ll do is the best I can. If anybody’s got questions to ask me, then write to me.

“I’d like to think that people appreciate me fronting up. The easy thing is to say I’ve got something else on, but it’s something that myself and Martin Bain talked about when I first came to the club.

“We knew we needed to reengage with the supporters. We needed to get out to the supporters branches and do tough Q and As to let them get an understanding of what we’re trying to do. We don’t want to hide away from any difficult questions – I’ve done it at all my other clubs

“You have to get the engagement back amongst the supporters. It’s easy for them to take an opinion, like on Lamine for example. It’s easy for people to judge him, but if you’re out there and telling people what’s going on, they’re getting it from the horse’s mouth.”