Michael Duberry is set to make his long-awaited playing return this morning in a behind-closed-doors friendly.

A career-threatening neck injury has kept the former Chelsea and Leeds United defender on the sidelines since the end of last season.

He underwent surgery in August and only returned to training last month after getting the green light from specialists.

Now there is just one hurdle left to clear – testing the 37-year-old in a match.

United have arranged a special 60-minute fixture on an artificial surface featuring first-team players taking on the youth team, after both their games were frozen off this week.

Manager Chris Wilder, who will also take the opportunity to have a look at a couple of triallists, is keen to see how Duberry gets on and if all goes well he could be included in the squad for Saturday’s trip to Morecambe in npower League Two.

The U’s boss said: “It’s a bit more controlled in training when you can pull out of challenges, but once you’re in a game – even if the tempo won’t be that high – he will still get the movements you need.

“We’ll see how things go, the experienced players know their bodies better than we will do.

“We will consult with him and the physio (Andy Lord) before making a decision.

“It will come down to how he feels and what he thinks – it may be that he needs two or three more days to be right for next Tuesday, or he could be OK to go.”

United’s entire season to date has been hampered by injuries, but the centre back has arguably been the biggest loss.

A strong defensive record was key to their play-off challenge last season, when Duberry featured in a side which conceded just 48 goals in 46 npower League Two games.

With just 21 fixtures played so far in this campaign, United have leaked 36 goals already and sit 18th in the table.

Wilder said: “Dubes is another one we’ve badly missed – he’s not played a minute this season and we’re deep into December.

“If you asked our supporters in the summer who would be our key players I should imagine a lot would have said Michael Duberry, given the good defensive record we had last season.

“To have him back for the second half of the season would be a massive boost – the key then will be keeping them all fit.”

Other players who are in need of a run-out today include Harry Worley, Jake Forster-Caskey, Tyrone Marsh, Simon Heslop and Luke O’Brien.