PLAYING a 90-minute match should not be an unusual occurrence for a footballer. For Sunderland midfielder Elliot Embleton, though, beginning and ending Tuesday’s Papa John’s Trophy defeat at Fleetwood Town was a landmark moment. For the first time in more than a year, the 21-year-old can take satisfaction from being match-sharp and injury-free.

Prior to Tuesday’s outing at Highbury Stadium, you had to go back to August 2019 and a League Cup win at Burnley under Jack Ross to find the last time Embleton completed a full 90 minutes at first-team level.

Since then, the youngster has been ravaged by a series of injury issues that have stopped his blossoming career in its tracks. First, a serious hamstring problem kept him on the sidelines for more than five months. His comeback was halted by the coronavirus pandemic, then just as things appeared to be taking a turn for the better, the midfielder damaged his thigh during August’s pre-season friendly with Gateshead.

It was initially feared it would be a case of ‘back to square one’ after Embleton limped off at the International Stadium, but thankfully his thigh issue was relatively minor and after a comeback appearance off the bench in last weekend’s FA Cup defeat to Mansfield, he took his return to another level when he proved he could last for 90 minutes at Fleetwood.

“It’s massive for me,” said Durham-born Embleton, who has long been regarded as one of the most talented youngsters on Sunderland’s books.

“It’s been over a year. You get little bits and pieces here and there but to start a game and finish a game is what you play football for.

“The gaffer has always said, even when he first came in and I was injured with my hamstring, that he liked the way I play and that he thought I could bring something to the team. He kept on saying that and hopefully I can get back and show what I can do.”

Having come through a lengthy rehabilitation programme in the wake of his hamstring issues, this summer’s thigh problems provided Embleton with an understandably difficult mental challenge.

Was he going to have to sit out yet another season? Would he ever be able to get his career back on track? Thankfully, while it took longer than expected for things to settle down, it quickly became clear that a return would not be too far away.

“In pre-season, I was back and fine,” he said. “So to pick up a little knock in the first pre-season game was gutting considering I missed most of last season as well.

“It’s been over a year since I played 90 minutes and it’s a big plus physically and mentally to get that over with.

“We thought it would just be a week or so (with the thigh injury), but it just stuck around and wouldn’t go away.

“It’s sorted now, though, and I’m looking forward to getting some more minutes.”

Embleton’s first-half performance was a real bright spot on Tuesday night, with the North-Easterner causing a succession of problems as he marauded forward down the left-hand side.

He struck the post with a sharp shot from an acute angle after a neat one-two with Dan Neil, and also provided the crosses that resulted in Ollie Younger thumping a header against the crossbar and Fleetwood defender Sam Finley flicking the ball against the frame of his own goal.

In a Sunderland team that can often be devoid of creativity and invention, Embleton has the potential to offer something different with his smooth running and incisive passing.

He has put himself into contention for a starting spot in Saturday’s League One game with MK Dons, although at this stage of his comeback, Phil Parkinson might be understandably reluctant to start him in two games in the space of five days.

Either way, he has quickly thrust himself back into the first-team picture as Sunderland look to get their season back on track in the wake of back-to-back cup defeats.

“In training, I just look to work hard and be the best player I can be,” said Embleton, who made his first-team debut back in December 2017 in a league game with Wolves.

“If that means I get picked on a Saturday, then happy days.

“Fans and staff, even players, everyone has been so supportive and helped me get through it. You always feel part of the squad.

“Now, I just want to get as many minutes as I can, get on the pitch and score some goals.”