Chris Young: Has the rise of Duncan Watmore changed Sunderland’s January transfer priorities?

Duncan Watmore.
Duncan Watmore.
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In those hectic first few days as the new kid in school, Sam Allardyce relied on others to bring him up to speed on the strengths and weaknesses of the Sunderland squad.

Doubtless, former Under-21 coaching duo Robbie Stockdale and Paul Bracewell will have hailed the potential of Duncan Watmore to Allardyce after the pair had seen both Gus Poyet and then Dick Advocaat only begrudgingly pay heed to the in-form forward.

While there were a queue of Championship and League One outfits who had Watmore at the very top of their wish-list, how much will Allardyce have really known about the 21-year-old?

In fairness, no Sunderland fan, coach or team-mate genuinely knew if Watmore would be able to make the impression that he has over the last few weeks. They just knew he was worth a punt.

But as Watmore’s acclimatisation to the Premier League becomes smoother by the game, does the rise of the England Under-21 international change Allardyce’s priorities for the January transfer window?

Attacking reinforcements were immediately on Allardyce’s radar a couple of months ago.

Despite Sunderland’s defensive problems, Allardyce admitted he was open to “anywhere across the front three” options on the Bosman market, hence the trial for Nigerian international striker Chinedu Obasi.

But with no bottomless pit of cash at Allardyce’s disposal (the targeting of loan deals, with an option, is testament to that) has Watmore’s rise ticked one of the boxes for January?

Although Sunderland’s frontmen fluffed their lines at Arsenal last weekend, the attacking options available to Allardyce are healthy – Watmore, Jermain Defoe, Steven Fletcher, Fabio Borini, Jeremain Lens, Adam Johnson and Danny Graham.

Yes, there’s perhaps a concern if Fletcher gets injured or loses form, with Graham the only other genuine ‘targetman’ alternative. For all the ex-Swansea man is a whole-hearted, committed striker, he just doesn’t score the goals required for Sunderland to survive.

It’s understandable that Sunderland have been keeping tabs on Charlie Austin, given the question marks over the prolific QPR frontman’s future, yet Borini can feasibly fill in for an absent Fletcher.

Other areas of the squad are simply bigger priorities, particularly if Sunderland are going to activate their one remaining domestic loan.

The three centre-halves have been excellent in the last three games, yet the lack of cover for them is alarming.

Wes Brown is fit-again after a knee problem, but Allardyce will need no reminding about the rusty 35-year-old’s struggles in last month’s rout at Everton.

Youngster Tom Beadling is only just back in full training, while everyone seems to have been forever talking about using Jack Rodwell at centre-half, without the £10million man ever playing there.

Allardyce’s confession last weekend that he will revert to a back four if one of the three central defenders is sidelined, was an alarming assessment of the situation.

No manager wants to change the system of the whole side just because one player is missing.

Sunderland are similarly thin on the ground in that left wing-back / full-back slot.

Patrick van Aanholt has been unrecognisably improved as a wing-back, with the extra layer of defensive protection giving the Dutchman the confidence and licence to make the most of his pace going forwards.

But he’s the only natural left-footer for that role.

While Billy Jones has proved his solid capabilities at left-back, the whole team would inevitably become lopsided if he was handed more attacking responsibilities on that side as a wing-back.

The loss of both Lee Cattermole and Seb Larsson has also highlighted the depth of Sunderland’s midfield options.

Allardyce has bodies at his disposal in Rodwell and Jordi Gomez, but neither appear to have particularly convinced him, albeit Ola Toivonen made the most of his opportunity against the Gunners last weekend.

Even the mere possibility of Yann M’Vila joining Cattermole and Larsson in the stands sends a shudder down the spine.

Given all those pressing requirements, Watmore’s capabilities as a Premier League player are a blessing in disguise for both Allardyce and Ellis Short, who has seen far too many of his millions wasted in the January transfer window.

Sunderland’s academy is not just there for show. It exists to produce players capable of holding down a spot in the starting XI and Watmore is proving to be one of those rare cases that fulfils that remit.

He may just have made the final third the least pressing of Sunderland’s January priorities.