"… I have a lot of self-belief but … on your day you can be great and on another day you can be bad, but I think you have got to have that confidence in yourself to believe that when you get a chance you take it …"
Duncan Ian Watmore is a name you are either hearing or talking about a little more with each passing week this season. That’s his quote from just last month, talking about having self-belief; which is ironic because he can’t get a game for a team that is evidently running very low on it.
It’s difficult to perceive why. The Mancunian has surpassed standards he set with Altrincham FC in the 12/13 Conference North season. At 18 years old, Watmore scored 14 goals for the Robins; won their Player of the Year Award, as well as the praise of the club’s supporters. His habit for running ‘eyes-down’ needed tinkering but his work rate didn’t. Alty fans knew he had a future in the upper echelons of English football some day.
After regularly scouting Moss Lane, Sunderland took that chance on Watmore in May 2013 and immediately consigned him to U21 Premier League competition. Between August and December 2013, Watmore – at right-wing – contributed to 8 goals in 11 matches for Sunderland U21s, scoring 3; including a goal and two assists at Meadow Park against Arsenal U21s.
That’s when supporters – specifically regulars at Eppleton CW – got talking, and the budding buzz about Watmore coincided with his first senior appearance under Gus Poyet. In January 2014, the winger somewhat impressed with a second-half display in the FA Cup 3rd Round against Carlisle United; linking up canny with Jozy Altidore and making the sort of all-nifty runs that got the 20,000+ in attendance off their seats. He was never used again.
His January loan to Hibernian FC in the Scottish Premier League was less inspired. Watmore, now also playing on left-wing, would score only once in 10 matches, against Partick Thistle FC, whilst missing a further 5 fixtures for Hibs through injury until his loan expired in May 2014.
His lacklustre experience in Scotland hasn’t discouraged him though. Back with the Sunderland U21 squad for this 14/15 season, Watmore is continuing to outclass his value to the club, and outshine most players in the U21 division. Of 16 appearances this season, the winger has contributed to 11 goals, scoring 8; including braces in both fixtures against Fulham U21s.
For the senior squad however, Watmore has again been restricted despite his regular acclaim, making two appearances as an unused substitute; in February 2015 against Manchester United, and against West Ham United in March. He’s not getting games in the Premier League and, understandably, arguments are being made in support of Watmore’s inclusion.
The reason for supporters is obvious. Duncan Watmore has contributed to 19 goals in 27 matches for the U21s, not with sporadic bouts of momentum but with constant consistency; and is the club’s current top goal scorer and leading assist creator this season.
However he is also juxtaposition against the senior squad; as his stock rises, theirs continues to plummet. Supporters have been subjected to apathetic performances at the Stadium of Light for too long this season and, knowing how good Watmore has been in comparison, are confident that the young winger can do better.
Or, if not better, then provide something different. Where relying on experience has been, in part, the undoing of Sunderland this season, the unpredictability of Watmores inexperience may be a much-needed shot kick to reignite a stale team.
If the idea of a young player boosting morale with unafraid direct runs, a lot of pace, the odd smart run and a decent pass sounds familiar, then it should. James McClean did that in the 11/12 season for Martin O’Neill. He was given that chance off his U21 record of 3 assists in 9 games – a lot less than Watmores contribution now, playing in a similar position.
However, as has been the cyclic problem for Sunderland lately, youth products are rarely afforded such an opportunity due to the clubs perennial relegation concerns. Gus Poyet, despite being fond of development loans, was reluctant to draft young players into a relegation fight. And Dick Advocaat has only just talked about it.
Naturally, Watmore has years of development to go. Lee Sinnott – his manager at Altrincham – informed Sunderland supporters of this in May 2013. He’s not filled out enough to be strong on the ball but he’s already building on the tactical know-how to consistently beat a man one-on-one. His forward passing in attack would also be a very welcome advantage in the senior team.
Take also his post-match interview in January 2014, after the FA Cup fixture against Carlisle United. Watmore spoke of how taken aback he was by the heightened pace and the opposition’s organised defence compared to the U21 level. He was not concerned – he was challenged by it, and is part of the fearlessness he shows in the youth team fixtures.
But then, that is all part of the invincibility most young players feel they have, and what allows them to play without fear despite making mistakes. Compare it to the current senior team: a group of experienced pros who have lost 2 out of 3 home matches, conceding four goals in both, at a time when wins are a necessity. Should the notion of ‘experience’ overrule the decision to play a young winger, with a good work rate, who surely could do no worse? And if he bombs, at least we’d know if it was worth playing an attack-minded youth prospect who supporters genuinely want to see in the Premier League.
As U21 coach Robbie Stockdale pointed out in October 2013, "… Duncan’s an old-fashioned kind of player … he will get the ball and run 50 yards with it … we don’t want to take that away from him …"
Maybe then, it’s time Sunderland gave the ball to Watmore and let him run with it. Or, as the player himself said; give him the chance and he will take it.