After spending a prolonged period on the sidelines through injury, it seems fitting that Sam Vokes’ imminent return to the first team would be the perfect Christmas present to everyone affiliated with the club.
When the Welshman collapsed following a seemingly innocuous challenge against Leicester last season, there seemed, unfortunately, a shared belief that that would be the final viewing of Sam Vokes in a Burnley shirt for the campaign.
Ultimately, our fears were confirmed when the striker was ruled out for several months having ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. With only two recognised strikers available, Vokes’ loss threatened to slightly hamper our promotion tilt but the players responded by surging to second place.
It was a bittersweet moment for me personally to see Vokes celebrate with the squad against Wigan; he should have been at the forefront of the celebrations rather than restricted to hobbling around on crutches, but he will of course been delighted to see his teammates finish the job.
So to learn of his comeback to the development squad following a lengthy rehabilitation process is fantastic news indeed. After our initial struggles in front of goal this season – and despite a recent upturn on that front, Burnley have just 12 goals to their name this season – seeing Vokes plunder a brace against Blackpool on Monday afternoon was welcome news.
It is the third time in five games he has completed the full 90 minutes, and his fitness was always going to be the primary concern. The fact he was scored a handful of goals across those games is a welcome bonus too, although much sterner tests are to come of course for Vokes in the Premier League.
Which brings me on to the crux of this piece: will Vokes go straight back into the team, or will be forced to contend with a place on the bench?
Danny Ings’ place in the team seems secure. A recent glut of goals against Everton, Stoke and Aston Villa showed what he is capable of when afforded time and space, and he has gradually grown into his debut season at this level after early signs of frustration.
But alongside him, Ashley Barnes is an equally rich – if not better – vein of form, having scored decisive goals against Hull City and Southampton. His most recent effort against Spurs was sublime and was typical of a man playing with confidence: I doubt he’d have attempted that effort a few weeks ago.
On the contrary, Lukas Jutkiewicz and Marvin Sordell seem to be the forgotten strikers at Turf Moor and have failed to make the desired impact. During the early weeks of the season I was willing for Jutkiewicz to score – especially after looking sharp during pre-season – but unfortunately he has looked out of his depth.
The same unfortunately applies for Sordell, and while some may still be expecting Sean Dyche to wave his magic wand of rejuvenation over the former Bolton man, the prospect of a stark reversal in fortunes looks bleak.
So where does Vokes fit into this? He is certainly a better option that Juke and Sordell, but the real question is when to reintegrate him back into the first team. Some may want to see him return instantly; he enjoyed the most prolific season of his career to date last year alongside Ings, whom it’s fair to say benefits the most from having the Welshman next to him.
But like so many of our squad, Vokes is an unknown quantity at Premier League level. Four appearances while with Wolverhampton Wanderers was hardly enough to prove his worth, but if he can emulate the majority of his teammates and make the step up successfully after a run of games then I would plump for him over Barnes.
But that time is a long way away, and for now it seems logical to hand him a place on the bench. Whether that will be for the Boxing Day clash against Liverpool or one of the double-header away from home against Manchester City and Newcastle United remains to be seen, but as Dyche says, you only want a player to come back from injury once.
The gaffer is unlikely to run the risk of chucking him back into the mix with the possibility of aggravating the injury, and with Barnes proving adequate foil for Ings, we are hardly desperate to rush him back.
Whenever Dyche chooses to throw him back into the first team is something he will judge in due course, and while it may be several weeks before we the best of Vokes at this level, the timing of his return is very important indeed.
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