United manager Neil Warnock revealed today that Austin had an “outside chance” of being available for the club’s schedule of games over Christmas and new year – a spell which on-loan midfielder Tonge will be forced to miss.
Tonge’s three-month loan from Stoke is due to end on December 22, the day of United’s Championship game against Middlesbrough, and Warnock will be unable to re-sign the midfielder until FIFA’s transfer window opens on January 1.
Warnock has used Tonge in every one of Leeds’ matches since securing him on a 93-day deal in September and the 29-year-old has thrived in the centre of midfield following the loss of Austin to injury last month.
Tonge’s first-half goal at Huddersfield Town on Saturday helped earn Leeds a third successive league win.
Austin, United’s Jamaican international, suffered a cracked ankle bone in the club’s bizarre 6-1 defeat to Watford, and while early fears that he would be absent for six months were allayed, he was not expected to be fit until next month at the earliest.
But Warnock said: “He’s coming along really well and there’s an outside chance that he’ll be back in time for Tonge going back to Stoke.
“That would be a big bonus and one way or the other he should definitely be with us for the start of January. We aren’t going to rush him but at the same time it’ll be great to have him back. He’s been a big player.
“It’s a bonus to be thinking about him at all because I honestly thought he’d be looking at about six months out when the injury first happened.
“That’s how serious we thought it was. But he’s doing fine.”
Austin was hurt in a second-half challenge with Watford’s Marco Cassetti on November 10 and Leeds initially suspected that the 27-year-old had fractured a leg in two places. A series of X-rays and scans revealed a cracked ankle.
In his absence, Warnock has turned to a midfield pairing of Tonge and David Norris and the United boss plans to speak with Stoke about the possibility of reaching a deal which brings Tonge to Elland Road on a permanent basis next month.
The midfielder’s contract at the Britannia Stadium expires at the end of the season and Stoke manager Tony Pulis is not expected to name Tonge in his 25-man Premier League squad for the second half of the term.
Tonge’s most recent appearance for Stoke came in January 2011.