Lengthy injuries are an integral part of football, and they have become commonplace at Sunderland in recent years. Last season, in particular, our treatment room would have been filled to the brim at times, with one regular occupant being Niall Huggins.
Huggins was signed back in August 2021 but has endured a rough time on Wearside. Over the course of nearly two years, he has been limited to just a handful of senior appearances. However, he did play a part in both legs of our playoff defeat to Luton, which constituted a mini run of games that has set him up for a strong pre-season.
The former Leeds player has been front and centre in the pre-season preparations, and it appears that he will finally get a full summer of training under his belt – a brilliant development to witness. Huggins is one of the few players I can recall who has played so few games but has shown an impressive performance in each match he’s participated in.
I was present in the away end at Birmingham when the starting line-up was announced, and to my surprise, Huggins’ name was among the featured players. It marked his first league start in 14 months, and he effortlessly blended in while contributing to our hard-fought 2-1 victory.
Unfortunately, we had to wait another three months before seeing him in action again – a brief appearance in the FA Cup game against Fulham. Only during the Luton playoffs did he make another appearance for the first team.
Huggins truly deserves a prolonged spell of fitness at Sunderland. It’s difficult to fathom the demoralizing impact of enduring such frequent injuries on a young player, but he remains resilient and determined to earn his place in the squad for the upcoming Championship campaign, which is rapidly approaching.
His pre-season performances have garnered significant praise from his boss, too, who has described Huggins as a ‘bonus ball’ and a robust player, emphasizing his value to the team. Mogga stated:
Niall is a bonus ball for us. He’s a good footballer, very athletic, very versatile, very confident with the ball at his feet. I’m really pleased for Niall.
He has to prove his robustness throughout the season and play games and be available to play games, and he has to try and force his way into the team, but he’s a really positive asset for the football club.
Huggins himself has spoken about his performances in pre-season, and what I find most encouraging is his revelation that he returned to training before many of his teammates did.
Speaking after his appearance in the win at Gateshead, he said:
I worked hard over the off season, I came in a week early with a few of the lads who had been in just to get a few extra reps and runs in.
I think that’s helped me, I’ve had a good two weeks [training] and I feel good, and it’s just about building that match fitness up now. That will come with time.
I feel really good and obviously I’m just excited to try and push into the team this season.
Our defensive options are stocked heading into this season thanks to the recruitment of Nectarios Triantis and Jensen Seelt, and in many ways, Huggins will have the feel of a new signing. Our pre-season has shown the depth we have particularly in defence, and Huggins has the chance to become a key part of the season ahead.