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A much-needed return to form by Kenwyne Jones has given Sunderland fresh cause for optimism that they will be able to reverse their alarming slide down the Premier League.

Jones last month looked a pale shadow of the player who roughed up some of the best defenders in English football as the constant speculation surrounding his future was both a distraction and a confidence wrecker.

Black Cats boss Steve Bruce – who will probably regret the way he initially handled the affair following the public pursuit of Schalke’s Kevin Kuranyi – has since made a concerted attempt to reassure the Trinidad and Tobago international he remains an integral part of his plans.

The Journal understands there have been several meetings between the pair to discuss his role in the side, with Bruce keen to see the 25-year-old offering more of a goalscoring threat as well as his usual hold up play.

And, with the window shut, Jones appears to be freshly motivated as he rediscovers the drive and determination which makes him such a potent weapon up front, as well as the ideal foil for strike partner Darren Bent.

“Kenwyne has been great, especially against Wigan,” said Bent, whose penalty at Portsmouth was his first goal in three games. “He played really well and showed what he’s all about. He held the ball up well, was strong, scored a great goal and hit the post. It’s nice to see him roaring, showing people what he can do because he is a fantastic player.”

Given that Jones has already played a huge role in two successful relegation battles with the Black Cats, it is imperative Sunderland continue to see the best of him, and hopefully the tension between him and Bruce has been relieved.

Whether that will be enough to prevent another rush of speculation over the summer regarding his place in the squad remains to be seen, although Sunderland refuse to entertain any thoughts of selling the striker unless a club is willing to match their £16m valuation.

Bruce will also be pleased to hear midfielder Steed Malbranque is making a steady recovery after he went to hospital in Portsmouth with a suspected heart problem.

Tests revealed the Frenchman had actually pulled a muscle in his chest and the 30-year-old could even play some part in the game at Arsenal next weekend as Sunderland’s medical staff continue to assess the speed of his recovery.

Meanwhile, assistant manager Eric Black is confident Sunderland have the mental strength to drag themselves out of their slump.

The Wearsiders have slipped to within three points of the dreaded drop zone despite talk of a possible European challenge in the autumn and have not won a league game since the start of November.

Their position could be even more perilous by the time they make the daunting trip to Arsenal next weekend as two sides below them in the table play each other in midweek as Wigan host Bolton.

But Black – who moved with Bruce from Wigan last summer – remains convinced Sunderland have the quality and the spirit to ensure they stay out of the relegation quicksand and start to move back up the table.

He said: “We know we can’t allow this (run of form) to continue. It’s our responsibility and the buck stops with us, we are under no illusions about that.

“What we can’t do is go into panic mode and start doing things which we know aren’t right. We will stay strong to our beliefs and take things forward. There’ll be no knee-jerk reactions, without doubt.”

:: SUNDERLAND’S three new January signings will kick-off their new life in red-and-white stripes by meeting supporters this half-term.

Matthew Kilgallon will team up with fellow defender Alan Hutton for the first signing session at the official club store in Debenhams, The Bridges, Sunderland on Tuesday, February 16 from 4-5pm.

On-loan striker Benjani will be at the Stadium of Light store on the following day, again from 4pm.