IT might not have been a first start in Sunderland’s midfield that Jack Colback would have wanted, but the young midfielder already feels battle hardened to help win a relegation fight.

Colback is hoping to keep his place in the Black Cats midfield against Wigan on Saturday after being handed his full Premier League debut in last weekend’s 2-0 defeat at Birmingham City.

Sunderland manager Steve Bruce would have preferred to have brought him in to his plans during better times, with a nine-game winless run leaving them nervously sitting above the bottom three.

A victory over fourth from bottom Wigan will take them above the 40-point mark which many expect to be enough to secure survival – and Bruce is trying to lift spirits ahead of a morale-draining few months at the Stadium of Light.

But Colback, who endured extremely difficult spells during two different loan stints under Roy Keane at Ipswich in the last 20 months, is not overawed by the situation at Sunderland. Instead he is keen to play his part in turning things around.

“It was hard for me to enjoy at Birmingham because we got beat. It isn’t a game I could really say ‘I’ll remember’ but thinking about it afterwards, it’s good to get that monkey off my back,” said Colback.

“I’ve finally started a game and I hope I’ve proved to people I can handle myself in the Premier League. I’m embracing it. You can’t go in with any fear.

“If you do, you’re going to make mistakes as you play. I have experienced this before.

Down at Ipswich at the start of last season we went 15 games without a win and it was experience I needed, looking back.

“It was a relief when we finally got the win. If I’d only ever been through the good times with no bad, it would have hit me hard. Everyone will come through this better than before.”

It was Colback’s impressive displays during his time at Portman Road that convinced Bruce to bring him back to Wearside and propel him in to the first team squad more often.

But he has had to bide his time for his first start after playing his last match for Ipswich on January 3, a 1-0 home defeat to Nottingham Forest.

The 21-year-old, though, has impressed the backroom team at Sunderland with his approach and desire, having graduated through the ranks under the guidance of Academy chief Ged McNamee.

Colback said: “You are born with the character to come through it. Everyone deals with the uncertainty differently – some find it raises their games, others don’t.

“But it is a time for everyone to raise their games, stand up, pull your sleeves up and not be scared to do the things we’ve been doing all season.

“Age doesn’t matter when it comes to dealing with this sort of pressure. 21 is quite old in football anyway – look at your Rooneys and the rest, they’ve been to a World Cup by that age.

“That is football, there is pressure and you have to deal with it.”

Despite Sunderland’s depressing run, which Colback has been around to witness at first hand, the young midfielder insists such an alarming spell of results has not taken its toll on the spirit within the squad.

“It is a really good set of lads in the dressing room with plenty of ability and we have to stay confident,” he said.

“We haven’t turned into a bad team overnight.

“A month and a half ago we were sixth and flying.

“You can’t put your finger on the run of results – if we could we would have changed it, you’ve just got to look forward to the next game, hope the crowd get behind us and move on from there.”

What has not helped has been the significant number of injuries that have prevented Bruce from striking any sort of continuity in his ranks, with absentees cropping up throughout his team.

And it was confirmed yesterday striker Fraizer Campbell, who has managed just four appearances this season because of a cruciate knee ligament injury, has undergone a second operation on the knee.

As a result Campbell is expected to miss the vast majority of next season as well.

Bruce said: “He will be out for 12 months.

“We think he will be OK. I hope he will be. If there’s anyone mentally tough enough it’s him.”