JASON STEELE claims Duncan Watmore’s return from injury has energised the whole of the Sunderland squad, but admits the current international break has come at an inopportune time with the Black Cats stranded in the Championship’s bottom three.

There has been precious little for Sunderland supporters to cheer this season, but Watmore’s return from a nine-month injury lay-off in last weekend’s 2-2 draw at Preston represented a rare moment of positivity.

The winger looked sharp as he played for almost half-an-hour at Deepdale, almost setting up a late winner for Lee Cattermole, and crucially showed no ill effects from his lengthy absence as he was clattered by Preston goalkeeper Chris Maxwell close to the touchline.

With another two weeks of training under his belt, Watmore is set to start next Saturday’s home game with QPR, and while it would be wrong to portray the former England Under-21 international as a saviour-in-waiting, his reappearance has helped raise morale.

“As soon as Duncan came on, it gave everyone a massive lift,” said Steele, who has replaced Robbin Ruiter in the starting line-up in the last two matches. “Hopefully, he can carry that on over the next few weeks and months, and build on his confidence and fitness.

“Even in training, you can see what an asset he is going to be to us. We all know pace is a massive part of the game now, and having somebody so direct and willing to chase lost causes, who makes clever runs, is going to be massive for us over the next few games. Hopefully, he stays fit, and fingers crossed he can score a few goals and boost everyone.”

Watmore’s substitute appearance helped Sunderland claim a welcome point at Preston, and the Black Cats’ performance at Deepdale was a marked step up from their dreadful display at Ipswich four days earlier.

There were signs of progress as Simon Grayson returned to his former club, and Steele admits it is a shame he and his team-mates were not able to build on that performance with another appearance this week.

Instead, they have to wait another seven days to take to the field again, with Saturday’s return to the Stadium of Light sure to raise the issue of the wretched run that has seen Sunderland fail to claim a home victory in the whole of the calendar year.

“The performance (at Preston) was good, and I think it’s definitely given us a lift and it’s something we can build on,” said Steele, in an interview with Sunderland's official website. “Maybe the international break has come at the wrong time because we looked like a good side on Saturday.

“I thought we had a good start (to the season), and a good change of mentality, but when you lose a few games, it’s sort of back to square one.

“We started giving each other and everybody a lot of hope, but it’s been tough over the last month-and-a-half or so. I think it’s a case of regrouping now, working really hard and trying to put a few things in place we can take (into) the next few games.

“That’s got to be our aim now, to start winning football matches and stop all the talk. Everybody keeps saying we’re nearly there, but it’s about time we were winning games.”

There should be more good news on the injury front next week, with Paddy McNair set to be involved in Tuesday’s Premier League International Cup game with Hertha Berlin at the Stadium of Light.

McNair will line-up with the Black Cats’ development squad for some match practice, having been sidelined since damaging his cruciate ligaments in late November.

“Paddy is back training with us now,” said Grayson. “The Under-23s play next week against Hertha Berlin and it might be that he is pencilled in for some part. It would be a nice boost for us.”