Jozy Altidore is taken to heart by Sunderland fans

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JOZY ALTIDORE remains an enigma.

The American striker’s tally for Sunderland stands at a measly one league goal in 13 months, compared to his prolific return on the international stage.

But Altidore’s popularity on the terraces continues to blossom, to the extent where he is emerging as a Sunderland cult hero.

And as SportMail’s Chris Young discovered, Altidore appears happier in himself than at any other stage of his Sunderland career, despite his tough maiden campaign at the Stadium of Light.

“IT WAS running hell!” laughs Jozy Altidore when reflecting on his solitary existence during Sunderland’s pre-season campaign.

It’s a telling moment during the interview with Altidore at the Academy of Light.

Not because Altidore disliked having to train individually with fitness coach Antonio Pintas while his Sunderland team-mates were participating in friendly encounters after reporting back late for pre-season. Few, if any, players would like that.

No, it’s the laugh and the smile which frequently appear on the face of the American that tells a much more significant story.

Sunderland boss Gus Poyet commented last month that Altidore was the happiest he’d ever seen him, despite the injury-hit summer which ruined his World Cup dream and the bit-part role he has been restricted to at the start of the Premier League campaign.

It was not just bravado from Poyet.

Speaking with Altidore yesterday after his return from international duty, he seemed a transformed character - far more content, far more settled and far more philosophical about what he endured during his maiden campaign at the Stadium of Light.

He admits starting a new season with a clean slate helps after his confidence was inevitably hit following a return of just one league goal last time around.

But there’s more to Altidore’s happier state of mind.

The upheaval last season involving Paolo Di Canio’s dismissal, Poyet’s arrival and the desperate quest for points wasn’t conducive to any player shining within Sunderland’s ranks.

Altidore suffered more than most, particularly with a £7million price tag hanging over his head.

But the 24-year-old appears to have come to terms with that.

He has an understanding of where Sunderland are heading now under Poyet, his role in that project and how the Black Cats are not suddenly going to be transformed overnight.

“It’s just about trying to get it right. It’s difficult, not only for me, but a lot of guys here,” said Altidore.

“We just have to figure out a way to get it right, because everyone is desperate to do well here.

“What we did last year was great (staying up) but it’s a new season now.

“It’s a new opportuunity for everybody and yes, a clean slate, absolutely.

“But the desire to do well is still there.”

He added: “It’s difficult in club football, in the Premier League especially, because it changes all the time.

“Players go in and out, so you don’t have that stability.

“We’re trying to build that, it’s a marathon not a sprint.

“But hopefully the formation will come good and we can get the goals.”

Despite Altidore’s troubles in front of goal, the support he has received from the terraces has only increased over recent months.

Every time Altidore found the net during the warm-up in last month’s Capital One Cup tie at Birmingham City, he was cheered by the 2,000 strong away following.

The striker’s grit, work-rate and dogged determination has almost overshadowed the lack of goals to the extent where fans are desperate for him to succeed.

It’s a pattern akin to the one which followed ex-Sunderland defender Nyron Nosworthy, when a player who was clearly struggling - yet desperate to do well - became a cult hero.

However, Altidore claims ignorance when asked about the chants which have developed in his honour.

He said: “I don’t really pay attention to it. I’m so focused on trying to improve and be better.

“When I do get on the field, I just try to be positive and make something happen.”

The one hefty question mark supporters do have though is why Altidore’s goal return at international level is such a contrast to his form for Sunderland.

Altidore netted in six consecutive internationals during 2013 - a US national team record - and boasts an average of almost a goal every three games for his country.

But Altidore responds: “You can’t really compare it.

“It’s nothing bad on Sunderland, but I’ve played with those guys for five or six years.

“I grew up with Michael Bradley (US midfielder) he knows me and that’s why we’ve had success there.

“At Sunderland, it’s different.

“There’s different players always, now Jordi Gomez has come in for example and it’s getting that blend.

“The biggest thing is to have that stability at the club that when the new players come in, there’s an easy transition.

“But I think the club is doing a great job now and the manager has brought in some good players.”

Altidore’s status on the international stage was reinforced last weekend when he captained his country for the first time in their 1-0 win against the Czech Republic - an experience he describes as “amazing”.

But more importantly for Sunderland, was the 90 minutes completed by the former Hull City loanee.

Altidore played catch-up throughout August, as he recovered from the hamstring injury sustained during the USA’s opening group game at the World Cup.

But after 90 minutes at Birmingham in the League Cup and again in Prague on Sunday - coupled with the substitute outings in each of Sunderland’s opening three Premier League outings - he believes he is now up to speed fitness-wise.

“I feel much better than I was when I first got back,” he added.

“I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t ready at the start of the season.

“But I feel much better now.

“I’ve been working with the fitness coach here and with the national team.

“I’m much further along than I was before and it’s now all about getting games.

“But at the same time, I understand my position and I’m fine with that.”