MATT KILGALLON admits he will be pinching himself tomorrow if he swaps reserve team exile for the Stamford Bridge spotlight.
Six weeks ago, Kilgallon made his final appearance under Steve Bruce in a 7-1 second string victory over Scunthorpe United, with his Sunderland career in tatters.
The 28-year-old, frozen out of the first-team picture for 18 months after his January 2010 switch from Sheffield United, had been granted permission to go on trial to the Championship in the New Year, such was the lack of demand for his services.
Last season’s disastrous loan spell at Doncaster had warned off any potential suitors and even a series of assured displays for the reserves had failed to persuade Bruce to include Kilgallon in his match-day squad.
But with new boss Martin O’Neill offering Kilgallon a fresh chance due to defensive absentees, the central defender has grasped his opportunity – starting the last three games and in line to face the likes of Chelsea hitmen Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba tomorrow.
Kilgallon said: “Playing Chelsea is a bit different to playing Scunthorpe reserves.
“But I’m just glad I kept myself fit because I knew it might happen sooner or later that I’d get my chance because there were a lot of games and a few injuries.
“I am pinching myself, but I always knew I was good enough to play, it’s just getting a chance because it’s frustrating training with the reserves.
“You just think what’s happened to me. Everyone wanted me at one point and now they’ve forgotten about me.
“But now I’ve got my opportunity and it’s time to do the business. I don’t want to get carried away because I’ve only played a couple of games, but I’ve been happy.”
He added: “I read in the newspaper that the manager said there was a clean slate which gave me more of a buzz to think ‘this is my time now’.
“All I could do was impress in training and do as well as I could. It’s a nice feeling to be back. I just didn’t let my belief go, that was the main thing.
“I had to be strong and you never know in football, it’s a funny game.
“I’ve been given my chance now and that’s all I wanted from the start. But it didn’t happen.
“I first signed when the club wasn’t doing too well and I got thrown straight in. I thought I did alright in the games considering the circumstances.
“But it’s getting a run of games, the Premier League is such a hard league if you’re playing one week and then waiting five weeks to play again.
“I don’t think about the past now, it’s gone and hopefully I can play a few games and show the fans what I can do.”
Sunderland head to Stamford Bridge in buoyant mood after winning four of their last five games and climbing from the relegation zone to the top 10 under O’Neill.
“I hope I start tomorrow, I would really love to play against Chelsea,” said Kilgallon. “But the gaffer is in charge and he hasn’t put a foot wrong since he’s been here. Every decision he’s made has worked. All the lads are looking forward to the game.
“He (O’Neill) gives you confidence in yourself, he doesn’t have to say a lot, you can just tell and you listen to what he’s saying. Little things he says are really important in the games.
“We’ve just got this belief at the moment that we’re not going to get beat and we’ve looked like that when we’ve played.
“We’ve absorbed a lot of pressure and played some nice football when we’ve got the ball.”