Sunderland injury news: Plan for Niall Huggins explained after welcome Leeds United comeback
Mowbray is a huge admirer of the 22-year-old, both in terms of his attitude off-the-pitch and his dynamic style on it. So much so, he almost signed the youngster at
Blackburn Rovers before he moved to Wearside. Huggins made a major impact before stress fractures brought an early end to his campaign, having impressed off both flanks in the opening weeks.
After returning to action earlier this season in the U21s, Huggins made a surprise return from the start against Birmingham City before the World Cup break as Mowbray faced an injury crisis in defence. Though it understandably took him a while to get up to the pace of the game, he stood up to the challenge and against all expectations completed the almost 100-minute game to help secure a win.
Since then, and perhaps not entirely surprisingly given the scale of his injuries and the time spent on the sidelines he has endured more frustration - playing 45 minutes against Fulham in the FA Cup but continuing to suffer some niggling problems either side of that game.
Mowbray confirmed ahead of the trip to Norwich City that the Welshman had completed a week's worth of full training in what represented a promising step forward, but the head coach also stressed the importance of not rushing him.
With survival all but secured he doesn't feel the need to take unnecessary risks and not when he has other options (O’Nien, Gooch) available.
"Niall has trained the whole week but he needs to play in an U21 game to get the confidence that, when he comes with the first team and gets on the pitch, he won't break down," Mowbray explained.
"With Niall, I feel it has gone past the urgency of the first team result and it's more about getting him in a mental position where he feels he can stay robust and strong and become a regular competitor to get in our team."
The feeling at Sunderland is that above all else, Huggins needs a full pre-season campaign to be in a position to compete regularly for a place next season. There is no doubt that Huggins has the ability to play in the second tier, but he needs that block of training and games to be able to confidently attack the rigours of a season.
The worst-case scenario for Sunderland now would be to jeopardise that pre-season programme by rushing him back to action now, when the stakes are not as high as they were around that World Cup break when there will still so much work to do in terms of consolidating and then kicking on.
The priority for Huggins will be to keep training regularly with the senior squad and build from there. Staying injury-free will almost certainly clear the way for a return to the squad and some welcome minutes before season-end, but that pre-season campaign remains the major focus for player and for club. Sunday was a crucial first step in what is hopefully a successful comeback.