Arbenit Xhemajli opens up on his Sunderland comeback, the next steps he'll take and determination to impress 'amazing' fans

This really was not a night for the faint-hearted.

Friday, 3rd December 2021, 2:17 pm

The cold biting, the stands sparse, the competition one that everyone knows fell a distant fourth in terms of the priorities for the campaign at large.

For Arbenit Xhemajli, though, this was a special moment.

As the dust settled on Sunderland' s crucial win at Cambridge United, the Kosovan took the call he had been waiting for.

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Sunderland defender Arbenit Xhemajli

Fifteenth gruelling months after his first and only competitive appearance for the club, he would be back.

"After being injured for so long I'm happy just to be playing a game, any game! It doesn't matter whether it's a friendly, a game like this one," he told The Echo afterwards.

"It's exciting for me.

"Even just training... after so long out it's exciting for me."

The centre-back had just been getting going when injury struck last season, arriving late in the pre-season campaign but just getting up to speed when suffering major knee ligament damage.

He was a young player (his stature makes you forget that even now, he is still just 23) who had taken the bold step of moving to a new country, a new city, a new league, a radically new style of football.

All of a sudden, he was staring down the barrel of a year's worth of solitary recovery work, with no guarantees of what would be waiting at the end of it all.

"It wasn't easy for me when I first came here," he said.

"I came pretty much without a pre-season, joined about a week before the season started.

"After about three or four weeks I got injured.

"I was on my own here, and I had been settling really well and quickly into the squad before my injury.

"Then you're always a little bit away from the team, because you're working on your recovery, they are away at games etc.

"You're always in the gym, working away on your own... it was a long, hard recovery."

All of which was taking place in the middle of a pandemic, one that limited contact to the outside world even further.

Xhemajli by and large brushes this off, which gives you an insight into his determination to make a success of his career.

"I've got a really strong mentality and really strong support from my family," he said.

"I talk to my brother a lot, my parents, and they keep me motivated.

"I'm doing all this for them.

"I sacrificed a lot to come here, to show what I can do and to get to the level that I want to be at. All of this for them.

"Of course it was tough not seeing them for a long time, and now again I haven't seen them for four or five months, and it's tough.

"But thankfully we have facetime!"

Xhemajli, like so many of his team-mates, came with the goal of being part of a journey back up the leagues, one that would hopefully be of mutual benefit to both parties.

He is eager to make up for lost time, but knows that patience at this stage remains very much a virtue.

Lee Johnson was encouraged by much of what he saw on Wednesday night, the decision making and the sheer volume of first headers Xhemajli won.

There were encouraging signs too of sharpness growing, particularly in one late move where he was faced to race into the channel to snuff out a dangerous counter-attack.

Johnson has warned though that there is no room for sentimentality when it comes to his league selection, and that it will be into the new year before Xhemajli is a realistic contender for starts.

It's clear that all parties accept there is still a lot of work to do in building both the strength and mobility around the affected knee.

"The confidence comes back game by game," Xhemajli said.

"Of course, I still need a lot of work to get sharper. I just spoke to the fitness coach and I'm going to do a test on Saturday if I feel good to see if we can then set a programme where I can get even sharper, quicker and more explosive.

"I need that, because I haven't played for a year.

"I need to take it step by step, though.

"I came here because we are the biggest club in this division that doesn't deserve to be in the division, and the support from the fans in every game is amazing.

"We really want to give our best for them out on the pitch."

That there is a role for a physically imposing centre back comfortable stepping out with the ball in this Sunderland squad is clear.

It will be some time before Xhemajli can realistically try to claim it, but even a brief spell in his presence leaves you in no doubt that a player described as the 'ultimate professional' by Johnson will leave no stone unturned to try and get there.

"Sunderland hasn't seen anything like my best yet," he said.

"I still haven't had a league game, so I haven't been able to show how I play.

"I'm working very hard to get to the point where I can play league games and show what I can bring to the team.

"Even now I'm back playing, with that kind of injury I had, it's going to take time for me to get back to my best.

"I have so much passion, but patience as well. I know how hard it's going to be because we have got a lot of good players.

"But we have injuries as well, so I'm working hard in training to show what I can do for the team."

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