Tonight’s game with Notts County not only signifies a fantastic opportunity for Sunderland to take another stride towards playing in a Wembley final, but also the long-awaited return to first team action for Duncan Watmore.
Duncan is one of the most likable personalities at the football club currently, and it goes without saying that we’ve suffered from not having him in and around the first team squad for most of the last year.
If he can eventually perform at anywhere near the level he was at before his first injury - as one of the most vital players in a team that were just starting to gain some momentum in the Premier League - then it’s clear that his quality, work-rate and speed will add yet another dimension to a squad already fairly well-equipped to deal with the rigours of League One.
That said, it’s important that fans are patient with Duncan in the same way that Jack Ross has taken his time in reintroducing him to the fold - when you consider that even just one of the injuries that he has suffered would have been enough to end someone’s career not too long ago, it goes without saying that we have to allow the former Altrincham man to get back up to speed at his own pace.
In fact, it might not even be until next season that we see Duncan playing at a consistent level. Whilst it’s likely his injuries have taken their toll physically, they will have also taken their toll mentally.
It’s like learning to walk again - Duncan has to be able to go back out on to the pitch and compete in the same way that he was able to previously. At first, it’s likely that he’ll worry about going into big challenges, and finding his confidence won’t just happen overnight.
That said, I hope the supporters turn up in big numbers tonight to give him a warm welcome back into the fold.
Duncan will only get through this with our support, so understanding and recognising that he’s still in the midst of a process has to be our priority with him right now.
When I spoke earlier this year to Duncan’s father, Ian, he too shared a story of his worries that Duncan would struggle to deal with the fact he’s suffered such a significant setback whilst lads he played with for England were succeeding:
I also worried about him mentally when we sat in the sports bar watching England vs Tunisia and he saw players he was playing with for England U21 not long ago starting in the World Cup whilst he was facing up to life in league one. I wondered how he’d react.
But he was texting them good luck, and cheering like a fan when Kane scored the winner against Tunisia...
And that’s the measure of the kind of character that Duncan is - upbeat, positive, mentally-strong and ambitious.
It’s actually quite funny how, despite years of the club signing players that struggled to buy into what Sunderland is about, Duncan has emerged as one of the toughest, most infectious personalities currently at the club.
Regardless of how he fares tonight, let’s just hope he gets through the game unscathed and having enjoyed his latest run-out in a game with more competitive significance.
If he can kick on from here and slowly integrate himself back into the first team squad, there can be absolutely no doubting that our chances of finishing the season strongly will be boosted by his inclusion in Jack Ross’ plans.
To finally have him back available to the first team manager is a significant boost, particularly with a tough second half of the season ahead of us.