JAMES McCLEAN believes he is close to recapturing his best form after enduring a difficult start to the season.
The Ireland winger exploded on to the Premier League scene with Sunderland a year ago and was a key figure in Martin O'Neill's rejuvenation of the Black Cats' fortunes, but he has struggled with confidence since the European Championships after receiving a call-up from Giovanni Trapattoni; he did not start any of Ireland's games in Poland.
He scored his first goal of the season in Sunderland's win over Reading last week and showed signs of being back to his rampaging best and, as the club continue to lurk just outside the relegation places after a poor campaign so far, the often controversial 23-year-old believes that there are signs of recovery.
"I know full well that I did not have the best of starts to the season," he admitted. "But in the last few weeks I have become more confident and I'm starting to enjoy my football again.
"If I can get somewhere near to where I was last season then I'm sure I can help the team climb up the table.
"It's not just about me, though. We are now creating lots of chances and scoring goals, so that shows there is a lot more confidence about the place. Hopefully we can score a few more goals, starting at Southampton next Saturday.
"We still feel we have enough quality in the side to go on a run and get some results.
"I am still very confident we can pull ourselves away from the bottom three."
Elsewhere, one of McClean's would-be rivals for the left-wing spot, Stephen Hunt, should be fit in time for the February friendly against Poland if Giovanni Trapattoni opts to recall the Wolves winger, who has been out of favour in recent months.