Preston North End manager Simon Grayson is refusing to put a timescale on a return for top scorer Joe Garner.
Grayson expects him back before the end of the season, although in terms of planning he has adopted a worse-case scenario of being without the striker for the rest of the campaign.
Garner has been sidelined since limping out of the 1-0 victory over Bristol City on November 22.
The 26-year-old suffered a detached tendon at the top of his shin and underwent surgery to pin it back to the bone.
At the time of the operation, his absence was estimated at between three and four months.
Grayson said: “Joe is making good progress but I said a few weeks ago that I will rule him out for the rest of the season because any time he comes back before then can be seen as a bonus for us.
“If I told everyone that I expected him to come back next week and it is then a couple of months, then we are all going to be disappointed.
“The likelihood is that he will be back some time before the end of the season.
“His rehab work is going well but there is no timescale on it.
“What we have to do is be careful not to rush him back too quickly.
“The good news is that Joe is making good progress and working very hard.”
Garner had netted 12 goals this season before his injury, adding to the 24 he got in the 2013/14 campaign.
In his absence, Preston have played 11 games, winning six of them, drawing three (they went on to win on penalties after a 2-2 draw at Oldham) and losing two, scoring 13 times.
Said Grayson: “Of course we are going to miss Joe to a certain degree.
“Anyone who loses their main striker – whether they are in the Premier League, Championship or whatever – will miss him.
“Joe is someone who had scored a lot of goals in the last year or so but people weren’t complaining when we had a good run without him.”
At the other end of the pitch, Grayson will hand a debut to goalkeeper Sam Johnstone in tomorrow night’s televised clash with Leyton Orient at Deepdale.
It was quite a surprise when PNE signed Johnstone on loan from Manchester United.
The 21-year-old’s arrival does leave a question mark against the futures of Thorsten Stuckmann and Jamie Jones in the longer term
Said Grayson: “It might have surprised people that we signed Sam and it would have been a bit disappointing for the other two keepers.
“But in football you have to make a decision for the benefit of the club rather than individual players.
“Time will tell with what happens. At the moment we don’t have to get rid of one of the keepers to finance the deal for Sam to come in.
“We will just run with this and see where it takes us.
“Sam can’t play in the FA Cup or Johnstone’s Paint Trophy through being cup-tied from playing for Doncaster.
“So one of them will come back into contention pretty much straight away.”