Sunderland full-back Niall Huggins has revealed a lack of playing time at former club Leeds United is the main reason why he left Elland Road for the Black Cats in the summer, speaking to the Sunderland Echo.
Despite the 20-year-old’s versatility, being able to play on both the left and the right-hand side of defence, his pathway to the first team under Marcelo Bielsa was blocked by the likes of Luke Ayling and summer signing Junior Firpo, who arrived from Barcelona in July for a £13m fee.
Another young full-back in Leif Davis was also unlikely to receive many first-team opportunities in West Yorkshire throughout the 2021/22 campaign, though he seems to be one step ahead of Huggins after being shipped out on loan to Championship side AFC Bournemouth.
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20-year-old Huggins made just one appearance in the Premier League despite spending his youth career with the top-flight side and with this, he felt it was the right time to permanently sever his ties and move on to the third tier in a bid to win more senior football.
Speaking about his exit and the reasons why he moved to the Stadium of Light, Huggins said: “It was a great experience to be near that first-team level in the Premier League.
“But Leeds are looking to bring in lots of high-quality players from around the world and, opportunity-wise for me, it was going to be hard to break through.
“The pathway just got a bit smaller for me and when I heard Sunderland were interested it was huge.
“They are a massive club. I know they are in League One now, but they’re fighting to get back up the leagues and they’re a Premier League club really.
“The philosophy there is similar to Leeds and think I can bring a lot to them.”
His current side are looking to get back to the Championship at the fourth time of asking after losing out to Lincoln City in the play-off semi-finals – and have made a good start to their campaign – winning four of their opening five games as they sit at the top of the League One table.
The Black Cats enjoyed a similar run at the start of last term, but will be hoping to avoid the late-season decline they suffered during the 2020/21 campaign and win automatic promotion to escape the play-offs in 2022.
The fact Huggins believes Leeds United and Sunderland’s philosophy is similar should enable the full-back to settle in quickly at the Stadium of Light and after spending time with an elite academy, the Wearside club will be hoping to reap the benefits from that.
His ability to play on both sides will also come in handy, although he is likely to replace Carl Winchester at right-back at this stage as opposed to challenging fellow summer signing Dennis Cirkin on the left.
The presence of Huggins and Winchester will ensure Luke O’Nien will be able to continue operating in the middle, where manager Lee Johnson desperately wants to keep him as one of the third-tier side’s key players in recent seasons.
This is why his arrival is such a big boost and sums up what has been a very good summer of recruitment for the League One side. They may have had a slow start to the summer, but their business late on in the window has been outstanding and they have seemingly coped well on the pitch with these late arrivals.
However, they will need to keep their heads down and continue working if they want to be the ‘Premier League club’ Huggins is describing them as. The stature of a club doesn’t win you titles. Quality across the pitch does – and they have added a hidden gem to their squad in the former Leeds United man.