Paddy McNair is ready to fight for his Sunderland place again after a long lay-off with a cruciate ligament injury.
McNair has played three games for the Under-23 side this month, completing a full hour against Everton earlier in the week.
Manager Simon Grayson has not ruled out the possibility of including the Northern Ireland internatonal in his squad for the Championship visit of Bristol City tomorrow, though the 22-year-old could also get further minutes under his belt against Manchester United in the U23 side on Sunday lunchtime.
McNair admits his spell out of the game left him frustrated but has been greatly encouraged by the response of his knee in the reserve games so far.
He said: “The timing [of the injury] was very frustrating.
“We’d started to put together one or two results and I had begun to feel that I had found my feet, but then the injury happened.
“It was weird because I felt the pop in the first half and it was sore, but once I got to the side of the pitch it felt numb.
“Then, in the changing room at half-time, it felt alright, and even after the game I was jumping around, doing single-leg squats, and I felt fine.
“When I was doing that, they obviously had no reason to think it was such a serious injury – I thought it was just a jarred knee or something.
“I came in the next day and it was swollen, and when I had the scan the day after it showed it was the cruciate ligament.
“Then, towards the end of last season, I could have trained with the first team, but I had a slight setback in Portugal.
“I did a pre-season thing out there, so that set me back a couple of months.
“I then had some bone bruising on my knee which set me back another month. So the last few months have been the most frustrating, but hopefully that’s the end of it now.
“My friends and family have kept me upbeat – there are times when you are really frustrated and you don’t want to talk to anyone, but I guess it’s just part of the game.
“During the game, first game back, I didn’t really think about my knee at all, or the kind of tackles that were coming in.
“I’d done so much hard work on strengthening my legs, and I had been training for a couple of weeks before that game and there had been a few tackles going in there, too.
“That’s been one of the good things, I’ve not even been thinking about my knee in games.
“I don’t feel any pain or as if its restricting me. I’m delighted with that.”
McNair’s return will come as a boost to under-pressure boss Grayson, who has so far failed to find the right balance in midfield.
The 22-year-old has watched Sunderland’s matches keenly so far this season as he looks to make an impact in the second tier, and hopes the open nature of games can play to his strengths.
He said: “The manager has been great. As soon as he came in, we were speaking, him asking about the knee.
“He’s glad to have me back and it’s great to hear that from a manager.
“For me, I think my best position is as an eight – in midfield.
“I’ve played a lot of times in defence, but I haven’t played there for about two years now.
“I haven’t played there for Sunderland, only in midfield, so the last time I did play in defence must have been at Manchester United under Louis van Gaal.
“I can chip in with a few goals – I scored a couple last season, and hopefully if I get my chance then I can add a few more.
“The Championship is a lot different to the Premier League. I think it’s a lot more end to end.
“It’s been interesting to watch and pick up little things and to try and work out what’s going to happen.”
McNair’s return will seem reunited on the first-team field with talented forward Duncan Watmore, the pair having spent most of their recovery from similar injuries together.
Seeing Watmore back in the side has been a boost to McNair as his own return edges ever closer.
He said: “The biggest thing [with having Duncan there] is when you’re doing exercises, if you’re feeling a bit of pain or whatever, if you’re on your own you wouldn’t really know if it’s just you or whether it’s normal, so that was really nice.
“It’s great to see him out there, he’s played well in the games since he came back in. We’ve both worked really hard.
“It’s one of those things. Hopefully we’re back now and can help the team back up the table where we belong.
“The camp is good – we’ve got a really good bunch of lads, we’re unbeaten in the last three. I do think we’re on the up.”