RR: So - it’s been a long few months for Duncan. Can you take us through what surgical/rehabilitation work he’s gone through since picking up his injury?
IW: He was feeling really good in the week before the Millwall game and was moving well when it happened again. I’ve seen the slo-mo of the injury moment, it was a freak accident, no blame on the other player, but one of those horrible accidents that might have done anyone’s ACL. And he’d had a scan the week before which was really strong, so there was no inherent weakness there - it was just one of those things.
The surgeon (who is one of the best in the world at dealing with this injury) was very confident that he could rebuild it again, and, unlike last time, there was no other damage to the meniscus. So he had the op within the week, it all went well, and the surgeon continues to be very happy with it.
During the first twelve weeks there’s not much you can do apart from ensure that the knee straightens fully whilst allowing it to heal inside. Initial rehab is upper body only, then after the twelfth week mark its about rebuilding the rapidly wasting leg muscles.
RR: And where’s he at currently - how’s he progressing?
IW: Its all going as well as it could.
Like last year, he has just had an early trip away to allow him to work on it in the close season when everyone else is on holiday. No more pensioners saved this time, though!
Touching wood, all the rehab work is on or ahead of schedule, but there are no shortcuts. For example, it will be May at least before he’s running again.
RR: Tell us about the impact this has had on him mentally - how’s he coped with having to bounce back for a second time, especially having to watch on from the stands each week when the team really could use his help?
IW: He was distraught on the day - I was at the game and taken behind the scenes to be with him in the medical room. Any parent reading this will know you’d do anything to swap suffering with your kids, and I hated seeing him there so upset, but I’m glad I was with him. I was also very impressed by all the players, coaching and backroom staff who came to see him at haf time or after the game. The only surprise was that Paddy McNair didn’t come in, but as we now know, he was just too upset for Duncan to come into the room at that time. There is real camaraderie between Duncan and all the players, but especially those two.
Since that day, I think he has been amazing mentally. Partly he knows the drill, partly he knows it was a freak thing, partly he still has a contract, partly he knows he came back as good/quick as before the first injury, and partly he’s still young.
But above all that he has real mental strength - its a defining characteristic that he’s always had. The Club and medics have been magnificent again, especially Binners and the gang behind the scenes. He also has a wonderful girlfriend who keeps him sane, good back up from his agents Quantum Sports, his three brothers keep him grounded with banter, and he has strong friendships inside and outside the game.
The fans have all been incredible again. It frustrates him immensely he can’t do it for them on the pitch, especially in this terrible run post Christmas. But all the messages of support he gets from fans - whether via Twitter or in person at games - really does help.
Whatever his failings might be as a player, everyone knows he gives his all every game and is a team player, and that comes through the many kind messages we get.
Then there was the Real Madrid letter - that was totally out of the blue and a real fillip. He also enjoyed being invited on Radio 5 Live. Gareth Southgate and Aidy Boothroyd have told me how much they valued him as a player in the England set-up and wished him well. And Fraizer Campbell - who also had a double ACL - has been in contact, which was a nice touch.
RR: Long term the goal will obviously be for him to get back playing for Sunderland again. Has he been given any sort of timescale to work towards?
IW: The journey back is unpredictable and individual. When he did his first injury (Dec 2016), it was the same fortnight that Paddy, Connor Wickham at Palace, Bolasie at Everton and Gundogan at City all did the same thing. Paddy’s stop-start return you know about, Connor is still not back, Bolasie wasn’t back until January, and only Gundogan came back at the same time as Duncan.
So, its hard to predict. But they’re bound to be more cautious with a second recovery, so I’m guessing a return 9-12 months from the original injury if all goes well from here. But we won’t know for quite a while yet.
RR: Obviously these recent set backs will have had an impact. What are his ambitions going forward? Knowing the type of character he is, I imagine this will have made him even more driven to succeed…
IW: On the day he did his injury, Callum Wilson at Bournemouth scored a hat-trick after his own double ACL nightmare. That gives him hope, belief and confidence.
So I think he straightforwardly wants to get back to playing regularly, playing well, contributing and then go from there.
He is an “accidental footballer” having been unearthed whilst doing a degree, and he will always have other options as a result. But he wants to have several years playing at the highest level he can.
It’s sad for everyone that the moment before his first injury Sunderland were beating the Premier League champions, their third win in four, and now...
Also, only a few months previously he and Pickers had won the Toulon tournament for England, and whilst Pickers might soon be playing on the Black Sea in the World Cup, Duncan might be lining up against Blackpool in League 1.
But that, as they say, is football.
The only thing we can say for certain is he will still have two years on his Sunderland contract in July and, unless the club decides to sell him in the summer (always assuming there is someone willing to buy him injured) he is 100% focused on getting back to the Stadium of Light and getting the team winning again.