NEILL COLLINS has thanked his new defensive colleagues for helping make his switch from Scottish Second Division football to the hustle and bustle of the Coca-Cola League Championship an easy one.

Since arriving in August in a £25,000 deal from minnows Dumbarton, the 20-year-old has found it easy to settle in the North-East and has forced his way into the Black Cats starting line-up.

On only his second league start for Sunderland the defence remained watertight in a goalless draw with Derby County - proving he can successfully fill in for the more experienced Gary Breen.

Breen remains on the sidelines for his sending off at Sheffield United, and Collins is likely to be the Irishman's replacement on Saturday against Millwall.

He should start alongside fellow countryman Steve Caldwell and admits there has been no animosity between the players battling for the right to form the heart of Mick McCarthy's backline.

In fact, both Caldwell and skipper Breen have been more than helpful in making sure the less experienced man of the three has come to terms with a new role at a club the size of Sunderland.

"All the players at Sunderland are very approachable but Gary has been great with me. I've come here from a different level and he's gone out of his way to help me," said Collins.

"It's made a big difference. Before the game against Derby, Gary had a word with me and gave me a real boost. Between now and the Millwall game I'll speak to Gary and Steve and work out exactly how I'm going to play."

Collins faces an even tougher challenge to command a regular first team place following the arrival of Chester City defender and namesake Danny Collins earlier this week.

"It wasn't that hard going from first team player to fringe player at Sunderland even though I enjoyed my taste of the action earlier this season," said Neill Collins. "I was named as a substitute and I still felt involved.

"I was under no illusions that I faced a fight for my first team place here and I made my debut sooner than expected."

* Sunderland winger Matt Piper is on course for a comeback next month from the knee injury that has kept him on the sidelines since April.

* New signing Danny Collins endured a baptism of fire in last night's comprehensive FA Barclaycard Premiership Reserve League 3-0 defeat to West Brom's second string at Durham City.

The Black Cats also gave a reserve team debut to 16-year-old Luke Ball, son of the club's former skipper and now coach at the club's Academy, Kevin, but they were totally outplayed.

Marcus Stewart and Chris Brown, in contention for a place in the starting line-up in Saturday's home game against Millwall, were replaced at the start of the second half by teenagers Neil Teggart and Jack Wanless but not surprisingly the youngsters, too, were unable to make any impression.

The visitors went ahead in the 32nd minute - Scott Dobie latching on to a through ball and finishing at the second attempt.

The Baggies went further ahead on the stroke of half-time when Adam Chambers scored and there was no way back for the home side as Albion surged into a three-goal lead in the 63rd minute. Brian Smikle on hand to convert a deep cross.

Sunderland: Alnwick, Ball, Dodds, Dickman, Christensen, Collins, Kingsberry, Leadbitter, Brown (Teggart 46), Stewart (Wanless 46), Ryan.

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