Richard Naylor admitted today that he had no expectation of an overnight recall to Leeds United's starting line-up after edging closer to a full recovery from knee surgery.
The club's captain made his comeback in a reserve-team fixture against Scunthorpe United on Tuesday night, his first appearance since late November, but he is returning to first-team contention with a clear
understanding of the weight of competition at Elland Road.
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The 33-year-old is rejoining a sizeable collection of centre-backs, strengthened last week by the permanent signing of Andy O'Brien from Bolton Wanderers, and the fight for selection might intensify further before the end of the season if Patrick Kisnorbo successfully completes his rehabilitation from a torn Achilles tendon.
Leeds announced this week that Kisnorbo was continuing his fitness regime at Thorp Arch after a period of treatment in America, though the timing of his comeback remains unclear.
With Naylor available again, Kisnorbo is one of the few players whose physical condition is influencing Simon Grayson's selection policy.
Naylor was sent for surgery almost two months ago having fought a minor knee injury for several weeks.
Leeds fielded him in a reserve game against Hull City on November 16 – an outing which was supposed to confirm his recovery – but a recurrence of the pain made an operation unavoidable.
His rehabilitation extended in the new year, despite Naylor expressing hope that he would make himself available for the some of United's post-Christmas fixtures, and it is unlikely that Grayson will consider him for Saturday's Championship match against Scunthorpe. Naylor completed 45 minutes of a 3-0 victory at Glanford Park on Tuesday before making way for youngster Nathan Turner at half-time.
Leeds have suffered only one defeat in their last 14 first-team matches, including last weekend's FA Cup tie at Arsenal, and few places in Grayson's line-up are easily attainable. O'Brien has established himself as a permanent half of Leeds' central defensive pairing, and Neill Collins and Alex Bruce are fighting a running battle for the second position.
The quality of Bruce's performance against Arsenal might see him retained at Elland Road on Saturday, the first time since December 18 that he has started back-to-back fixtures.
"The team have been great while I've been out," Naylor said. "I'm under no illusion about what a hard slog it's going to be for me to get back in. But they're winning games and doing well and that should be the only thing that matters to anyone. "It's hard being out of the team whether they're winning or losing, but when the team's losing you're always desperate to get out there and help them. It's probably a bit easier when they're winning games because there's no great urgency to get back from injury. I've not been under any real pressure."
Naylor's attempts to return to full fitness have been hampered by the weather and the affect of cold temperatures on both the training pitches at Thorp Arch and United's schedule of reserve fixtures.
Frozen surfaces restricted his schedule over Christmas, and that of left-back Ben Parker, and Tuesday's game at Scunthorpe was Leeds' first reserve league fixture since their victory over Hull at Elland Road in November.
United have staged regular behind-closed-doors friendlies this season and are likely to continue to do during the second half of the term, encouraged by a thin fixture list in the totesport.com League East Division.
The club's second string were due to play at Lincoln City next week – a match that Naylor would almost certainly have featured in – but the game was postponed due to Leeds' forthcoming FA Cup replay against Arsenal. Their next reserve league fixture is not planned until February 8, when Lincoln are due to come to Elland Road.
"I'm probably going to be another couple of weeks until I'm fully fit," Naylor said. "It's all depends on how the pitches are and how many reserve games we have.
"The hard surfaces have taken their toll on me a little bit and it's difficult getting over an injury when they're like that. My recovery's been as quick as I could have expected and it's all gone to plan, but the pitches have held me back for the past couple of weeks. A couple of reserve games have been cancelled and the pitch at Scunthorpe was very hard again.
"But it's been a while since I last played and it was nice to be out on the pitch, kicking a ball around again. My recovery's felt long but it always feels long when you're not in the team. All you want is to be out there playing."
Kisnorbo, meanwhile, is once again in the hands of Leeds' medical staff having travelling across the Atlantic for further treatment on his injury before Christmas.
The centre-back – United's player of the year in his first season at Elland Road – has worked patiently to repair the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in March and which denied him an appearance in last summer's World Cup, and club chairman Ken Bates revealed that Kisnorbo could yet make himself available for the Championship run-in.
"It's taken him a long time to recover and we've had him in America twice but we think we've finally cracked it now," Bates said. "We're hoping that he'll be available before the end of the season and it would be nice to have him for the March and April run-in.
"We've missed him since he got his injury and I suspect that his additional strength at the back could have seen us a few places up the league table."
United have a short list of selection concerns ahead of this weekend's clash with Scunthorpe and winger Lloyd Sam could be absent again after suffering a thigh stain in United's recent defeat to Cardiff City.
FITNESS FIGHT: Leeds club captain Richard Naylor