Boyhood Leeds United fan reveals 'frustrating' Elland Road exit and 'horrendous' years that followed

Ex-Leeds United and current Sunderland player Niall Huggins has opened up on the surprise he felt at his Elland Road departure two years ago following a maiden call-up to the Wales senior squad this month.

Huggins joins up with Leeds trio Ethan Ampadu, Dan James and Joe Rodon this week and could make his Wales debut against Armenia or Turkey as Rob Page's side attempt to qualify for a third successive major international competition next summer.

A place at UEFA's 2024 European Championships in Germany appeared out of reach at the beginning of the season due to a lacklustre start to Wales' qualification campaign. But, results in recent months - including a pivotal victory over Croatia - have meant the home nation are still in with a chance of making it to a third consecutive major tournament, if they win both qualifiers this month.

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Ex-Leeds youngster Huggins left the club two summers ago after being told he was surplus to requirements, a phone-call which came as something of a surprise to the 22-year-old, he says.

"I thought I was doing really well. I made my debut in the December, which was the best day of my life – playing for my boyhood club.

“I did well, and I was on the bench quite a lot until the end of the season.

“But you never know in football. The manager at the time [Marcelo Bielsa] liked me, but then I had a call telling me I probably wasn’t going to be involved the next season and I never really got an exact answer why.

“It was a bit frustrating.”

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Huggins licked his wounds and joined north-east club Sunderland instead, but endured an 18-month spell with very little football, a stress fracture in his back, recurring injuries and lots of rehabilitation work. The Thorp Arch graduate pulled no punches when describing this particular time of his career.

“The last two years have been horrendous. It was awful, to be honest."

Huggins' back injury kept him out for several months, suffering setbacks along the way and then required daily bone-strengthening injections for three months in order to resurrect his Black Cats career. 

Fortunately, Huggins has played a more central role for Sunderland this season as Tony Mowbray's side look to go one better than their Championship play-off semi-final disappointment in May.

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Wales, meanwhile. are second in their Euros qualifying group, joint on ten points with Croatia who were seen off at the Cardiff City Stadium last month. Group leaders Turkey will guarantee their place at next summer's tournament with a point against Wales on Tuesday, November 21, or perhaps before that fixture takes place if either of Wales or Croatia fail to take maximum points from their next match.

Croatia's remaining qualification fixtures are against Armenia and Latvia - both of whom can no longer qualify for the Finals. Wales travel to Armenia this Saturday where it is highly likely they will need to take all three points in order to remain in second place ahead of Croatia, owing to their head-to-head record.