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DEAN Whitehead has warned Premier League defences to watch out for an even more combative Kenwyne Jones this season, and claimed the almost fit-again Sunderland striker is returning “bigger and stronger” than when he damaged his knee.

Jones, who has been granted compassionate leave to return to Trinidad & Tobago this week following a family bereavement, has spent the last four months recovering from a ligament injury sustained in June’s international friendly with England.

That recovery has involved a number of lengthy sessions in the gym, and while the 24- year-old boasted a strong physique before his lay-off, he has bulked out even further following his individually-tailored weights programme.

Having returned to light training last month, Jones will continue his rehabilitation with the Trinidad & Tobago national squad this week under the watchful eye of one of Sunderland’s physiotherapy staff.

And with the Wear-Tyne derby with Newcastle on October 25 having been identified as a possible first-team return date, Whitehead is expecting opposition defences to struggle with the strongman striker.

“It’ll be a massive boost when Kenwyne gets back,” said the Sunderland skipper. “He was out training last week, and even though it was all non-contact stuff, it was great to see him getting much closer to a return to the team.

“He’s looking massive mind. He must have been doing hours and hours in the gym because he’s much bigger than he was last season. If people thought he was big and strong last season, just wait until they see him now.

“When it gets into that first full-contact session, I’m sure he’ll be knocking players all over the place.

“He’s really filled out in the gym, and I can’t see anyone out-muscling him this season.

His strength has always been part of his game, but looking at him now, he’s going to be an even more difficult proposition.

I’m only going on what he looks like – but he looks as though he’ll be one of the strongest players in the league.”

Jones is expected to form a new-look strike partnership with Djibril Cisse, and with the Frenchman having appeared isolated in a number of games this season, his return to the side should give Sunderland’s starting line-up a much more balanced appearance.

It could also hamper El-Hadji Diouf’s chances of forcing his way back into the starting lineup, and despite arriving on Wearside amid a flurry of publicity, the Senegal international is paying the price for the increased competition that has a c c o m p a n i e d Roy Keane’s raft of summer signings.

Grant Leadbitter is another player to have missed out in recent weeks, with Saturday’s dramatic substitute appearance against Arsenal representing only his second firstteam outing of the campaign.

Leadbitter underlined his qualities within a minute of entering the field against the Gunners, and Whitehead has promised the 22-year-old his time will come provided he continues to be patient.

“It’s important that we don’t expect too much, too soon from Grant,” he said.

“And it’s important that Grant doesn’t expect too much, too soon either.

“A lot of the clubs near the top four tend to disregard their younger lads if they don’t hit the peak of their form straight away. But it’s very hard for any young player to do that.

“With Grant, it’s all about a gradual progression. He did really well two seasons ago, and then had another good season last year. He’s maturing all the time, and that will eventually make him a much better player.”

Leadbitter is generally seen as a tough-tackling ball winner, but Saturday’s long-range strike confirmed his technical ability and Whitehead feels the Fencehouses-born youngster is capable of becoming an accomplished all-round midfielder.

“He can be as good as he wants to be because he has all the skills you need to be a top midfielder,” he explained. “We see him out there every day, and he’s probably one of the best trainers we have.

“He could be anything. He can pass the ball, he can shoot and score goals, and he likes to get stuck in to a tackle as well. You look at his all-round game and you cant say there’s anything missing. He’ll develop and hopefully be a top, top player for us.”