FIT-AGAIN Damien Johnson is set for an extra special birthday celebration as the club’s hamstring curse begins to ease.
The midfielder, who has missed the past five games after picking up an hamstring injury in last month’s draw with AFC Wimbledon, is set to return for tomorrow’s home match against Plymouth Argyle, a day before his 32nd birthday.
Hamstring problems are again expected to rule out strikers Steven Gillespie and Jon Parkin, and while that leaves Micky Mellon down to a solitary fit frontman in David Ball, Johnson’s return gives him a selection headache of a much more welcome kind in midfield.
The manager’s focus this week was understandably on bringing in a loan striker, though he was pleased to face the midfield dilemma posed by Johnson’s availability.
Mellon told The Gazette: “Damien Johnson is fit and gives us competiton in midfield.
“The great situation is that the midfield players are saying to me that they realise they have to do more to get into the side now.
“That’s the attitude I want and they realise what a very talented set of players I’ve got.”
With on-loan former Scotland captain Barry Ferguson sure to occupy one of the midfield berths, Johnson joins a scramble involving Lee Fowler, Jamie McGuire, Jamie Milligan, Alex Marrow and Barry Nicholson to start alongside him.
Another one pressing his claim for a start is Conor McLaughlin, who impressed when deputising for Shaun Beeley while Town’s regular right-back was out injured.
Mellon went to watch Belfast-born McLaughlin at Bloomfield Road on Tuesday, when he came on for the second half of Northern Ireland Under-21s 2-0 defeat by a Tom Ince-inspired England.
The manager added: “I went along to watch Conor and we are delighted to have such great lads with such promise at the club.
“Conor was disappointed he did not start, but he has had a chance in our first team and he did well with that opportunity.
“He will get better, and playing in matches like Tuesday’s will only help. We have a lot of players like him, and that’s exciting for a club.”
Town continue to occupy a position in the play-off zone, but would like to break their cycle of drawn games. They have shared the spoils in their last four outings, and in five of the past six.
Tomorrow’s struggling visitors have had a troubled campaign, but shocked the league by holding leaders Gillingham to a draw last weekend, having lost their previous four. That run of defeats included an FA Cup elimination at the hands of non-league Dorchester, which raised questions about the future of manager Carl Fletcher.
James Lowry was a key man for the Pilgrims in midfield that day and is someone Town will have to watch this weekend.
He has only recently returned to the side after damaging knee ligaments in pre-season and boss Fletcher admitted he nearly rested the 25-year-old against the Gills.
Mellon added: “Plymouth’s result against Gillingham shows what this league is all about.
“It’s so tight, and you can’t underestimate anyone because there is very little to choose between most teams.
“You can’t affort to drop your guard for a single minute because it can be so costly.”