JOHN OSTER admitted last night that he thought his Sunderland career was over before Howard Wilkinson threw him a Stadium of Light lifeline.

Oster, 24, was on loan at Grimsby Town for two months and expected never to play for Sunderland again when he was recalled last week.

He had not started a first-team game for Sunderland since March 2001 until Wilkinson named him in the line-up for Saturday's visit to Bolton Wanderers. The Wales winger rewarded his manager with a good performance at the Reebok Stadium, laying on Kevin Phillips's equaliser and going close with a shot.

Now, Oster wants to convince Sunderland that he is worthy of a new contract when his current one-year deal expires in the summer.

He said: "If I put my hand on my heart, I have to say I thought my chances at Sunderland were over when I went to Grimsby.

"A couple of weeks ago I was at Grimsby and I never thought I was coming back.

"This has come totally out of the blue, but after doing well there I'm delighted to be back in the Sunderland team. It's down to me to force Sunderland to offer me a new contract.

"I want to stay, and if I put in the performances hopefully I'll force Sunderland's hand."

Oster's last contract ran out last June, but Peter Reid gave him a one-year extension after he suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury during the season.

He also had the misfortune of shooting Mark Maley in the eye with an air rifle, ending his erstwhile teammate's career.

Oster's troubles on and off the pitch have coincided with Sunderland's struggles, with around £20m-worth now on the treatment table.

He added: "The replay is possibly a game we could have done without, especially with the injuries we're carrying now.

"But at least we're still in the Cup. The injury list is starting to look as if it's never-ending.

"We already had enough players out and we've lost a couple more in this game.

"The squad is starting to look bare and thin, but it's up to the lads to club together. It's a squad game now more than a team game.

"Everyone will expect us to win the replay now because we'll be at home. If we can get a Cup run together, it will be good for the club."

* West Ham have confirmed their interest in Leeds midfielder Lee Bowyer.

Managing director Paul Aldridge said: ''There have been no conversations with Leeds yet, and our priority is to sign a forward.

''But that's not to say that we aren't interested in signing a quality player like Lee."

Read more about Sunderland here.