If you looked at the number of games Duncan had played for Sunderland, it’s hard to believe he has been at the club for as long as he has. But such is the frustration for a player - signed from Altrincham at the start of a busy transfer window in 2013 - who looked for all the world to progress into a big asset for the club.
A lad with his head screwed on, whose ultimate goal to be a footballer would not blindsight him from having something to fall back on. He split his time between the club and studying in Economics and Business Management at Newcastle University; dedication which is somewhat of a rarity these days, particularly amongst modern day footballers.
His commitment off the field to learn are commendable, but it was what Watmore was showing on the pitch that began to impress fans and pundits alike. Barring a brief, yet solid 1st appearance as a substitute in the 3-1 FA Cup win against Carlisle United in January 2014, and a subsequent period on loan at Hibernian, he spent his first two seasons at Sunderland at under-21 level.
His raw pace and ability on the ball was evident from the off; an enthusiastic winger unafraid to get on the ball and take on defenders. This led him to notch 11 goals in 19 appearances in 2014-15, winning under-21 Premier League Player of the Year.
Whilst there’s always questions over whether good reputations at younger levels can transmit over to the senior team (case in point being Ryan Noble), but Watmore was able to answer them. Following an impressive Toulon tournament with England under 20’s (being named in the ‘Team of the Tournament’) he began to force his way into the first-team picture. Making his debut league appearance from the bench, and notching his first senior goal for Sunderland in a dismal 3-1 defeat by Norwich.
His name became a mainstay in the matchday squad and subsequently the starting XI, as the season progressed. But his first of regrettably many long-term injuries that would beset his Sunderland career, occurred in the 2-2 draw at Anfield in February 2016. This time, damaging ankle ligaments, from an awkward fall in the first half.
This forced Watmore out for two months, and whilst he recovered earlier than anticipated, to play a significant part in Sunderland’s survival that season under Big Sam (see his 2nd half appearance against Norwich), his injury hell was far from over.
Fast forward to 2016-17, and a run of 14 league games before a season-ending injury against Leicester in December, would sadly be the longest run of games he’d play for Sunderland, before or after this injury. That knee injury - his anterior cruciate ligament – brought a premature end to his season, and Watmore could only sit and watch Sunderland plummet out of the Premier League. By the time he returned to action, we were facing Preston at Deepdale and 2nd bottom in the Championship.
People may have feared he wouldn’t be the same after such a serious injury, but Watmore seemed like his usual self. Sunderland needed players like Watmore for the slog that season, but it lasted a mere six appearances, before another ACL in the same knee as before against Millwall.
To have returned from ten months out, and have suffered another long-term injury takes a lot of mental strength, especially a recurring type of injury. Watmore always oozed enthusiasm, but even for him this would be tough to work through.
By the time he returned, a whole year had passed, the club were in the third tier of English football, with new owners and a new manager (Watmore’s eighth in his time). The feeling upon his return, was he could be an integral player in League One. This was a player capable in the Premier League only a few years ago, but the big question hanging over that, was whether he could stay injury free.
The club were evidently careful when easing him back into the fold, with only three starts in the eleven games he managed, and only completing a full game once.
His shining moment that season was over-shadowed shortly after in a game away to Wycombe. Behind 1-0 deep into stoppage time, Leadbitter’s long-range shot was saved but Watmore was quickest to react, smashing in the equaliser to the sheer delight of the players and fans behind the goal.
His game however ended on a sour note, with an awful challenge from Marcus Bean in the 10th minute of stoppage time, which once more ended Watmore’s season prematurely.
As we entered the last year of his contract year at the start of the season, it was always unlikely there would be a contract extension on offer for Duncan. When you have spent over two years in the treatment room, it’s never going to bode well. Not to mention significantly high wages for a player in this league, which could help enormously in bringing in players this summer.
Ultimately, for both player and the club, it is the right path to take. Duncan is only 26 years of age, and still has plenty of time make a name for himself. Of course, clubs will be more than wary given his history, but I for one hope there is a side out there willing to take the plunge, and give him the opportunity to show what he’s capable of.
But as for Roadrunner’s time at Sunderland, that’s all folks!