Nearly six months ago Duncan Watmore celebrated his birthday. Fortunate enough to be on the right side of thirty, at twenty five years old he has been employed by Sunderland AFC for six years, and in that time has made a grand total of sixty six appearances for the senior team, scoring six goals in all competitions.
When the old regime renewed Watmore’s contract in 2015 no one could have predicted the horrendous downturn that would come next. For the last four years Watmore has been the proverbial ‘walking wounded’, yet still he’s due to remain on the payroll until his contract runs down in 2020.
Rewind back to those bygone days of Premier League mediocrity and you’ll occasionally glimpse a winger with feet so fast Sam Allardyce nicknamed him “The Road Runner”. While not the fastest off the mark his top speed is truly awesome - a trait that on the face of things is invaluable for a forward. Somewhat ironically - and sadly - though, the lad shares more in common with Road Runner’s arch nemesis - the infamously calamitous Wile E. Coyote.
It would come as no surprise then if the powers that be at Sunderland AFC wanted rid. Now surely one of the highest earners at the club, Watmore occupies a space previously reserved for players that have drawn more ire - rightly so - from the fans by their prolonged absence from the pitch.
Frankly, like others in his position all over the world, Watmore is in a good spot. The perverse nature of employment contracts within the game guarantee him a handsome salary for the duration of his contract, or a juicy lump sum should the club choose to unburden themselves of his deal - regardless of whether or not he’s actually capable of doing his job for Sunderland.
It’s no secret that transfer business this season has been blighted by strictly imposed restrictions on the squad wage budget. “One in, one out” has been the order of the day, and some might argue that we still haven’t achieved anything close to readiness in terms of preparing for our assault on the league table.
In circumstances like this would it even be reasonable to not consider the presence of Watmore and any players like him when considering our desire - nay, need, to progress from this division almost as quickly as we arrived in it? Would it be fair to judge the work done by Tony Coton and his cadre of merry scouts without at least allowing for the conversation to be had, in which we discuss the ethics of holding on to a salary when the institution paying it depends on shrewd fiscal decisions and rigid margins in order to salvage the pride of a city?
Of course, I would be remiss if I truly blamed Duncan Watmore for the precise details of his contract. There are a half dozen other doors at which to lay the blame for financial mismanagement and short-term fixes not really fixing anything. It’s hard to not feel bitter though. Ultimately, nobody is daft enough to think that Duncan wants to be anywhere but on the football pitch - it’s just that his fragile body unfortunately does not allow him.
There are nine words that are so commonly heard among football fans that we should relabel them an adage: “you would do it if you had the chance”. It suggests quite simply that were any sane person faced with the rather unique choice of cutting their losses and walking away from a job for a reasonable sum of compensation when their employer is hampered by their contract and lack of performance, or digging their heels in and squeezing every drop of juice from that mismanaged orange, they would choose the former option.
I’m not surprised that people feel like this, but I am left to wonder about the nature of their belief. Football is an ideological thing. We hear almost daily that footballers are role-models for children (usually when they’ve done something ‘wrong’ that the media can exploit for clicks and paper sales) and a great deal of effort and money goes towards reinforcing the notion, for the fans, that football is about more than big business - it’s about pride; it’s about community; it’s about personal achievement and heroic tales of athletic greatness. Our best footballers are our modern day heroes and they stand head and shoulders above us.
It’s a little difficult to wed those grandiose notions to the widely espoused “fact” that footballers needn’t feel responsibility for whatever burden they themselves place on a club, and on those fans that are conditioned to admire them for their athletic heroism and proud sense of community.
It has been suggested that the kind of deal required for Duncan to tear up his contract and try his luck elsewhere simply won’t be made by Sunderland AFC. Perhaps the club realise it would cost relatively the same amount of money and require substantially less effort to simply keep him around, half-hoping that his penchant for pulling up injured vanishes and that he is once again made capable of being a reliable, contributing squad player or, better yet, the promising forward his U21s record led everyone to invest in.
Personally I believe that the perverse nature of employment law within football is debilitating for clubs, and cases like Watmore prove it.
It’s somewhat understandable from a perspective of fiscal responsibility that players have to be protected to some degree when it comes to their future - they commit themselves to organisations that could be described as soulless, whilst being bound by rules that should be mutually beneficial to both parties, and in doing so leave themselves vulnerable in the event of a disaster befalling them. After all, most footballers have known nothing but football for the majority of their lives and like so many unfortunate race horses owned by the callous elite, a broken leg might as well be a bullet to the head.
We’ve seen players with strong potential fall by the wayside - the wayside is veritably littered with them. Not so Duncan Watmore, a boy from a very privileged background with a good education and enough connections through his father that I doubt he’d even have to interview for a very comfortable job in his next career. Swings and roundabouts.
It isn’t understandable to me that employees who contribute nothing whatsoever can’t simply be sacked. In these instances all the power belongs to the player and their agent - that bane of any club’s existence.
Is it right that Duncan Watmore is now one of the highest earners at Sunderland AFC yet has barely kicked a ball for us since we entered League One? Is it right that he knows he’s on more money than most despite not contributing anything? Is it right that Sunderland AFC can’t legally shift this dead weight without incurring unseemly penalties and country miles of red tape?
Invariably, Watmore’s contract will run down - will he find a new contract as lucrative as his current one? Will he ever be the footballer he was tipped to be? Will Sunderland AFC ever get a return on their substantial investment in Duncan Watmore? For me - it doesn't look likely.