RR: Whilst the other players have been off on their pre-season jollies I presume Duncan has been otherwise occupied... hopefully not out saving pensioners though!
IW: We had his (non-pensioner-saving!) holiday back in March. Once the other players left in May he was still at the Academy of Light doing rehab, and during June he has undergone self-funded rehab and recreation in Portugal - based at a top quality running track and gym in Vila Real de Santo António - plus World Cup Ronaldo worship at a sports bar in Cabanas!
RR: The last time we spoke to you was in March, and you said that during the first 12 weeks or so there wasn’t really much that Duncan could do in terms of strengthening his knee. How has his rehab gone since then, and where he he at now?
IW: Touching everything wooden, it has all been much smoother than last time. No meniscus trouble, much less swelling of the knee, so his strength and conditioning work has been ahead of schedule throughout.
RR: How’s his surgeon feeling about his progress?
IW: He was very pleased with the operation, delighted at the 12 week check-up and we will see him again in late July. That meeting will determine when he is back on the pitch, but I’m confident he will give a green light to the final phase of rehab.
RR: Is he on or ahead of schedule?
IW: I would say the first twelve weeks were on schedule, since then slightly ahead (especially compared with last time). But the fact is that it is what they call a revision - i.e. an identical repeat injury - and it means he will be more cautious on return dates.
So I’m still expecting an Autumn return, but until we see the surgeon….
RR: Is he back running yet?
IW: Yes, all fine so far.
RR: What has it been like for him mentally, with this being the second time?
IW: I’ve been surprised at how well he has taken it mentally.
The whole thing has been less of an unknown to him which has helped. Everyone is confident he can return as new if he doesn’t rush it - it was a freak accident second time around, not an inherent problem.
He really felt he could have made a decisive difference to the championship season if he’d remained fit, so it was hard to take the relegation. But it is what it is, and the new sense of optimism around the club is good.
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 is comfortably beating me in FIFA fantasy football whilst constantly sending me “it’s coming home” whatsapp messages…
I should add that Gareth Southgate has been brilliant with him, sending him or me regular messages of encouragement, and reminding him of his cameo versus Switzerland, his wonder goal against France and so on.
We also had “the letter” from Real Madrid which was totally unexpected and a real (no pun intended) boost at a low point. David Moyes has also been very encouraging and complimentary, and players like Frazier Campbell (who’ve had the same injury) likewise.
Finally, doing charity work and some media appearances on Radio 5Live have also helped.
RR: What are you expecting with regards to a return to playing football?
IW: There will need to be a period of U23 games before he’s back in the first team. It will be so much better on all fronts if the first team starts well, so he can be an optional extra to be gradually re-integrated, but then we said that last summer…
To be honest there is more uncertainty in my mind about the return schedule now that “Binners” (Dave Binningsley) has been made redundant.
He was the club’s senior physio who has been with Duncan every step of the way, and I have ultimate confidence in him on these complex recoveries. I tweeted at the time that he is “One of the best guys I’ve met in football, an expert at his trade, trusted by top medics in the country, goes the extra mile every day, even his days off, loved the club and in return was loved by Duncan and me.”
There were genuine tears on both sides when Binners rang Duncan with the news.
RR: It was a shame to see Paddy McNair show a desire to leave the club, particularly since the club invested so much time in rehabilitating him properly. What about Duncan - does he feel he owes the club a debt of gratitude for the way he’s been treated through two horrendous injuries?
IW: I honestly don’t think the relationship between football clubs and their employees works like that in either direction, however much fans would like it to. There are always calls for player loyalty, but just ask all the loyal (much lower paid) employees that get laid off by every club on relegation/change of ownership what they think. Or the loyal youngsters who are let go every year, usually ending the dream. Professional football is a hard business, careers are short, money talks, success matters and change is constant.
On the playing front, clubs view the squad as a whole relative to the competitions they are in - in terms of numbers, ability, playing position, age, character, injury record, transfer value, wages, length of contract and so on. Its a balance, and hopefully the new manager and player recruitment team can get that balance right quickly, with an affordable wage bill, and get off to a good start. Whatever happens with any squad there is always a load of spin from the agents and/or the club officials, and I take most of it with a pinch of salt.
For example, Paddy is a very good player, and an equally good lad, and so it would have been good at one level if he had stayed. Equally I am sure it suits all parties to let him play at nearer his true level and get his wage off the books, with a sizable transfer fee in, so investment (transfer and/or wages) in several new, league-one-ready players can occur from that one departure.
As far as Duncan is concerned, he has two years on his contract, he has always been very happy at the club - his rapport with the fans is particularly strong - all he wants now is to get back to playing regularly and well, to see the team winning again and getting promotion at the first time of asking. He has not done anything but focus on that.
He is very encouraged by his conversations with Jack Ross, and the way the manager sets his teams up to play should suit Duncan.
I joked on Twitter that the current transfer market isn’t looking too hard at one-legged economists. More seriously, if Duncan gets back to his best and stays fit then maybe there will be offers for him in January or next summer. It will then be up to the club as to whether to cash in or not, but that will be a good problem for them to have. In the meantime, its get fit, get back, get goals and assists, and get promoted.
Duncan came to Sunderland from Altrincham, a club that may just provide a good omen for the Black Cats. Alty had back-to-back relegations in 2016 and 2017 - rock bottom of their league - but a strong board, new young manager, some key retained players, plus many new ones saw them dominate their league last season and get promotion at the first attempt.
The club is at its happiest for some years and there is real optimism amongst the fans. Lets hope the same is true of Sunderland in a year’s time.