It’s fair to say that since Niall Huggins arrived at Sunderland, it’s been a mostly negative experience for the young full back - mainly due to issues neither he or the club could have done a great deal about.
I’ve got to be honest, I thought Huggins was finished here. We signed him based mainly on his potential, having just burst through at Leeds but not quite managing to properly challenge the established first-teamers for a spot in the side, but almost from the off he was blighted by injuries and unable to hold down a place in the team.
He was one of the first players we signed with a curiously-structured deal - in that we basically got him on a free transfer but weighed the deal out with a nice sell-on fee, something we’ve gone on to do a number of times since - but one which benefits both ourselves and the selling club if the move works out and he does well.
All of the injuries seemed to mount up and given he basically spent two years on the sidelines, I thought he’d just ran out of time here. As the club moved forward at pace, it was going to be hard for Huggins to keep up, keep fit and perform to a level where he’d be able to compete with some of the best teams in the Championship.
Yet, against the odds he’s done just that. It’s a credit to Huggins’ persistence, belief and workrate that despite all of the setbacks he’s suffered that he’s now a first team regular at Sunderland.
He’s played right back, left back, at wing back and even at times in the centre of the park - and he’s even demonstrated that he can score goals from time to time, running half the length of the pitch with the ball before sticking it in the top corner against Watford, a strike which earned him the SkyBet Championship goal of the month award for October.
Things are most certainly looking up for him, and I’m over the moon. It’s nice to see someone who has had some proper shit luck come out on the other side smelling of roses for once.
Though not born in Wales, Huggins qualifies for The Dragons through his Welsh father, and having already gained international recognition at U21 level it wasn’t clear whether he’d ever actually make the step up given the length of time he’s spent out on the sidelines.
Yet, having held down a first-team spot he’s finally been called up to play for Wales at senior level by Robert Page, and he could make his debut today away at Armenia as they look to pick up an important win as they battle with Croatia for second place in the group.
Whether or not he does actually play really is irrelevant - the fact he’s playing regularly and playing well is the reason he’s been called up by his country, and it all points towards Huggins being in a good place right now.
Well, as good as it can be... Armenia does look a bit sketchy.
The accommodation for these Wales fans out in Armenia looks at bit sketchy…— Football Away Days (@FBAwayDays) November 17, 2023
Respect for making the journey! pic.twitter.com/p1mbKC9Jek
The spot is his - can he hold it down?
It seems a bit funny to me that Huggins has found his opportunity to solidify his place in the team at Sunderland because of the fitness issues of others, but really this season he’s had a clear run at the left back spot in our team because Dennis Cirkin - who in my opinion, when fit, is the best left back in the league - cannot stay fit.
Aji Alese isn’t far off from a return, but he was never likely to feature much in the first half of the season having undergone some pretty serious surgery, and Lynden Gooch was sold on deadline day, meaning that if Huggins could keep himself in good nick he’d be starting more often than not until a natural, fit challenger emerged from the pack.
It’s almost December and he’s still fit and he’s still playing, which is great, but in order to really hold down the place once one of the other lads comes back he had to turn in some impressive performances.
It was a pretty shaky start but I think he’s gotten better with every game, and his performance last time out in the home game with Birmingham was probably his best in a Sunderland shirt - for me, he was man of the match having made some brilliant blocks, tackles and even clearing the ball off the line when a goal looked certain.
As much as I rate Cirkin and Alese, their own fitness problems mean we can’t rely on them to be fit and ready to play, so really from here it’s down to Huggins and what he does.
Touch wood, but he’s stayed fit thus far this season and if continues to do that AND play well, nobody is taking that shirt from him.
I’m interested to see how he fares when he has some proper competition, but for now, it’s great we’re seeing something close to the best of what Niall Huggins can offer.
He was signed from a Premier League club and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that, with Sunderland, he could end up back there one day.