STUART Tomlinson could give Burton Albion’s League Two promotion hopes a boost by returning to action months earlier than expected.
Brewers boss Gary Rowett expected the 27-year-old goalkeeper to be out of action until late in the season after rupturing knee ligaments in October.
However, Tomlinson is making a much quicker recovery from the injury than expected and could be back in action as early as next month.
Rowett said last night: “Tommo still has a way to go, but at the moment he’s well ahead of schedule in terms of his recovery.
“He’s already into the second stage of his rehabilitation programme and if all continues to go well, he could be playing again in mid or late January.”
A former loan player with the Brewers, Tomlinson turned down a new deal with Port Vale in the summer.
He was signed by Rowett as a free agent in early September and quickly established himself as Albion’s first-choice keeper ahead of Ross Atkins and Dean Lyness.
Atkins was Albion’s regular No 1, on loan from Derby County, last season and Rowett was in the summer able to renew the deal until January.
The Rams’ stopper played in Albion’s first seven games of the season, but his erratic form prompted Rowett to bring Tomlinson to the Pirelli Stadium.
The burly keeper proved an instant success, with the Brewers losing only once in 11 games with him in the side.
However, he suffered his serious injury close to the end of the 1-1 draw against former club Vale on October 23.
Lyness - described as “one for the future” after being snapped up from Kidderminster Harriers during the close season - came off the bench to see out the game.
With Atkins nursing a side injury at the time, Rowett then brought in Mark Oxley on loan from Hull City and also took the precaution of registering 49-year-old coach Kevin Poole.
Oxley was preferred to Lyness in the next five games - only for his spell at the Pirelli Stadium to come to a premature end when he suffered a broken hand in an FA Cup first round replay at Altrincham.
Rowett was forced to put his faith in Lyness and the 21-year-old Birmingham-born player has shown promising form in his five outings so far.
The Brewers boss said: “Dean has done terrifically well and has not done a lot wrong.
“The technical part of his game is probably the best at the club, and he just needs the experience to improve his awareness and match intelligence.
“That’s why it will be a major boost to have Tommo back, hopefully much earlier than we thought, to provide real competition for a place in the team.
“It’s still a case of him taking it step by step, but a fully-fit Stuart Tomlinson will be a real asset.”
Tomlinson’s short-term contract runs out next month, but Rowett will surely want to negotiate an interim deal to keep him on board - especially as Atkins is due to return to Pride Park.
Before the injury, Rowett had opened talks with Tomlinson about a contract that would probably have run through to the end of next season.