Wales newcomer Niall Huggins is ready to step onto the international stage after expressing fears that a mystery injury which left him with weak bones would end his career.
Huggins joined up with the senior Wales squad for the first time this week ahead of decisive Euro 2024 qualifiers against Armenia and Turkey after what the Sunderland defender called a “horrendous” period.
The 22-year-old made just a couple of league starts in his first two seasons at Sunderland after joining from Leeds in August 2021, with the full-back becoming increasingly concerned over his football future.
“The last two years have been horrendous, awful to be honest,” said York-born Huggins, whose father was born in Bangor.
“When I first joined Sunderland, I suffered an initial stress fracture in my back and that put me out for four or five months.
“I had the same sort of issue but in different places when I was doing my rehab and it was something we struggled to get to the bottom of.
“There was never a reason for why it was happening. All the tests we did, nothing ever seemed to stand out.
“It was just that the bones were weak, which made it tough.”
Asked if he felt his career was at risk at the time, Huggins said: “Yes, 100 per cent. It got to the point where every time I was doing the rehab, the first few steps back on the grass, it was always there in the back of my mind.
“I would think: ‘Is this going to happen again?’ And you do start to worry. The years are going by on the contract and you are worrying about it.
“When I did finally start to get fit, it helped so much mentally. But it is still hard to look back on.”
Huggins said the issue was eventually resolved by “having an injection every morning for three months”, strengthening his bones and allowing him to return to training.
But the physical demand of matches took a toll on his body, with muscular issues and a knee problem ruling him out until Sunderland’s Championship play-off games in May.
It has not been until this season that Huggins has been able to show the potential that persuaded Marcelo Bielsa to hand him a Premier League debut for Leeds at Arsenal in February 2021.
“It literally feels like I’m starting my professional career,” said Huggins, who has started 11 Sunderland games this term and scored his first senior goal – a Championship goal-of-the-month contender – against Watford in October.
“This is the first year where I can really show what I can do and what level I can play at. To have the call-up to the senior team shows that even more.
“It wasn’t even at the back of my mind, but it felt amazing.
“To represent a country feels unbelievable. It means as much to the lads who were born outside Wales as those born in the country and who have lived there for a long time.
“It just shows the culture that the set-up creates for the players. You can see how amazing the fans are and how much it means to the country to make it to the Euros.
“The previous results show how much the lads want to play for the badge, including the lads born in England – and me being one of them. I’m just excited to one day hopefully put on the shirt and play for the country.”