Niall Huggins: My long road back from Sunderland injury frustration and why this time really feels different
Niall Huggins is ready to finally put his injury frustration behind him at Sunderland
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It may only have been a few minutes but the significance of each one was not been lost on Niall Huggins.
Another challenging campaign with more injury frustration, but here he was. Right in the middle of the battle, very much a professional footballer again.
The plan had been to take it slowly at the end of the campaign, but those cameos against Luton Town were exactly what Huggins needed to feel as if he is emerging from the other side of all those setbacks.
He has three pre-season appearances under his belt, now, and even a goal from central midfield against Gateshead. It has, for the first time in a while, all gone to plan.
"Getting some minutes at the end of last season really helped," he explains.
"You can sometimes think after so long about, 'what if something happens...' but to get those minutes in the play offs, it was a good bonus and it ended the campaign on a high. It gave me that real spur to kick on in the off season and put all of it behind me.
"It's been a tough couple of years but I've had a good run now.
"We've been careful with it, if I've been feeling anything then we've just taken our time. The aim has always been to be ready for the start of the season, so it was good to get that run out and then hopefully a few more minutes on Tuesday."
Huggins arrived from Leeds United and immediately looked the part, dynamic and versatile and very much a part of Sunderland's new era.
So the severity of that initial injury, and all niggles that would follow from it, came as a major blow to player and club.
The road back has been longer than anyone would have imagined but there finally seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel.
"Probably the worst part of it was that, if you've been somewhere for years and you do go down, you know the place and there's more people to talk to," Huggins explains.
"When I first came, I was only here for about a month and because of the nature of the injury, there really wasn't much I could actually do. I just had to take the time at home to let it heal, so you're not around the building as much. That does make the transition harder but the club and staff were really supportive, and the older lads who have had injuries were really good to talk to.
"The fans were always really appreciative of my performances when I played as well, which helped. That helped me keep a positive mentality and I'm always confident in my ability. I feel like when I have played I've been able to show glimpses of my ability and I'm excited to hopefully show more this season."
Both Sunderland and Huggins have been careful not to raise expectations too much this summer - this was always going to be a long process and there will undoubtedly be a few bumps in the road to come. What gives everyone genuine hope, though, is that for the first time since he arrived at the club the full back has been able to establish a base level of fitness and robustness.
"It's been massive for me," he explains.
"It's been my first pre season for a few years, really. When I first came in it was a hard one, I'd been doing stuff at Leeds but I came in without that real base. It made it harder and again last season, you end the campaign injured and that means that even when you do get fit, you're playing catch up on everyone else. You're coming back in November, December time when players are getting to their peak fitness, so in training you're trying to keep up with everyone but you're not quite at the level. You push yourself a bit harder and sometimes that can result in more setbacks.
"This off-season has been good for me, and it goes back to ending last season fit so that I could get this under my belt. Hopefully that can help me push on now."
What also works in Huggins' favour is his versatility, and that he has a genuine champion of his talents in the dugout. Mowbray almost signed Huggins while in charge at Blackburn Rovers and has made clear that when fit, there is a role for him in the squad.
"I went to go and meet him when he was at Blackburn," Huggins recalls.
"In the end it didn't go through but when I found out that he was coming here, that was obviously exciting for me. To get to know him more and show him what I can do. We spoke at the end of last season and he said he wanted me to really challenge and try and get into the team, which was another massive boost for me to know that I am wanted.
"Whether it's coming off the bench, or really pushing to get into the team. This is a really high-energy team, lots of running and lads who want to get onto the ball. The full backs are pushing on, making runs in behind. It's a good mix and that energy was a big part of things at Leeds when I was there, so there's some similarity there."
Huggins has a wry smile recalling his return at Birmingham City last season, a game that ended up running for nearly 100 minutes and tested him to the limit as his box was put under siege late on.
It was an important win for Sunderland and an important night for the player, a reminder that he could help his team win Championship games. He looks ready for for a few more, at long last.