PHIL Bardsley admits he paid the price for returning to the first-team fold prematurely after missing the start of the season through injury.
But the full-back insists he is now beginning to find his feet after an enforced spell on the bench.
Bardsley struggled following his comeback in October after the ankle problem which ruled him out of Sunderland’s entire pre-season, plus the first two months of the campaign.
The lack of action and delay in taking to the pitch left him short on match sharpness, and the 27-year-old was relegated to the bench after an uncomfortable afternoon against Chelsea in December, with midfielder Craig Gardner resuming the right-back role.
But after a six-game absence, Bardsley returned to the side for last weekend’s FA Cup third round clash at Bolton – and says he is starting to feel like his old self.
Bardsley said: “I probably rushed back a little bit because I was so desperate to get back.
“I’d missed a large chunk of the season, and you forget the things you do well and don’t do well when you’re out the team and out of training for so long.
“It’s quite difficult to grasp it.
“But the last few weeks I’ve felt more like myself, and hopefully it can continue like that.
“It’s vital pre-season. Let’s not kid anyone, it’s clear for everyone to see how important it was.
“I was back in training and playing games, but I still felt I was miles away. It was a difficult time.
“The injury took so much out of me.
“I got back in and you think you can pick up where you were the season before, but I was miles off it.
“I wasn’t under any illusions that I was playing the best football of my career because it was far from it.
“But the last few weeks I’ve felt as good as ever.”
Bardsley believes being left out of the starting XI has proved beneficial, and hailed Sunderland boss Martin O’Neill for the manner in which he dealt with the situation.
“You want to play every game, but the manager was brilliant with me,” said Bardsley.
“He pulled me aside and gave me his words, and I respected his decision.
“I didn’t really have a leg to stand on about being taken out of the fire for a bit.
“It’s probably the best thing that’s happened to me because I’ve felt miles better since I’ve come back.
“Hopefully I can get back to somewhere near how I was over the last few seasons.”
With Danny Rose a major injury doubt for tomorrow’s visit of West Ham, Bardsley is in contention to keep his place in the side, albeit he may be switched to left-back.
And the former Manchester United man knows Sunderland must show courage against the inevitable aerial bombardment from Sam Allardyce’s side, as the Black Cats look to build on a productive festive programme.
Bardsley added: “Big Sam’s teams have always been direct. When you look back to Bolton, Blackburn and Newcastle, where it didn’t quite work, and now West Ham, he’s had similar sort of players.
“They know what they’re good at, and it will be a tough test for us.
“But if we stick our head in where it hurts, we can get something out of the game.
“We got two great wins against Southampton and City, which were vital.
“With the fixtures we had around that time, it was always going to be difficult.
“But to take the six points from four games, was a good achievement.”