Steve Bruce has insisted he will take care not to hurry David Meyler back into action too quickly.
The Sunderland midfielder is closing in on a return following a six-month absence with knee ligament damage.
He featured for the reserves on Tuesday, playing the first 30 minutes of a 2-1 defeat to Liverpool's second string.
The young Irishman will hope to soon be in contention for a first-team appearance and Bruce is eager to have him available again.
However, the Black Cats manager recognises that he cannot take risks with a player who has been out for so long and thinks it will be the turn of the year before Meyler can figure in the Premier League.
"We have to be careful with David. He's done fantastically well and come through his first reserve game, but we're looking at at least Christmas and maybe the end of January," Bruce told the club's official website.
"I've got to be true to him. He's a great boy and would play tomorrow if I'd let him, but we have to be careful and nurse him through.
"I'd say David needs a few more reserve games and another eight weeks' training before I'll even consider him for the first team."
Meyler is in agreement with his manager and admits it is just a relief to be playing again for the reserves at this stage of his rehabilitation.
The player said: "I don't have any specific targets just yet. I'll just see what the medical staff tell me over the next few days.
"They know best so I'll just keep working as hard and train towards the (reserve) match against Blackburn on Monday.
"It just feels really nice to be playing after a long time out. The rehab has gone well and still is. I just want to get back out there and hopefully force my way back into the first team.
"I feel good. I've had roughly three hard weeks back in training with the first team. Obviously I'm not 100% fit yet but I felt good and I guess I'm just delighted to be back playing."
Meyler's half-hour cameo was always the plan and reserve-team manager Keith Bertschin said: "Of course David was a bit rusty, but the run-out will have done the lad the world of good.
"Obviously he needs a lot more games, but easy does it. David has taken a major stride in getting back on that pitch and now we must make sure he's come through it okay."