Sunderland's Duncan Watmore on the '˜great feeling' from award-winning breakthrough season
Throughout pre-season, Duncan Watmore received slaps on the back and words of praise in his ear.
Sunderland’s backroom staff, along with his new senior team-mates – particularly captain John O’Shea – were quick to encourage Watmore and urge him to continue working hard in training.
But the thoughts of then manager Dick Advocaat were less certain.
The veteran Dutchman had snubbed Watmore in Sunderland’s relegation scrap at the end of last season – even for the Black Cats’ final day dead-rubber at Chelsea – and was adamant that the ex-Altrincham man was a central striker, rather than the wide player where he had predominantly thrived at Under-21 level.
Watmore played a minimal part in Sunderland’s friendly programme, yet the logical explanation was that he needed to avoid burn-out after playing for England Under-20s at June’s Toulon Tournament.
The acid test was whether Advocaat would use him when Sunderland’s competitive outings began, or if he would have to push for a loan move to keep his career on track (an option that the then Sunderland boss favoured).
Even when Watmore stole the show from the bench against Norwich and Exeter, there remained a nagging feeling that Advocaat wasn’t convinced.
But Watmore immediately caught Allardyce’s eye, was handed his first Premier League start by the new Sunderland manager and has remained a favourite ever since.
Allardyce was positively beaming when he was able to contemplate using Watmore again a fortnight ago after the 22-year-old’s sooner-than-expected return to training from ankle ligament damage.
The grounded, bright and ever polite Watmore realises that he remains at the start of a long route to realise his full potential, and make the transition from super-sub to regular starter.
But after being voted Sunderland Supporters Association’s Young Player of the Year this week, Watmore can reflect on a breakthrough campaign which has seen him demonstrate his top flight credentials.
“At the start of the season, I was in the squad, but I wasn’t playing,” said Watmore.
“But thankfully, I’ve played a lot of games and the new manager has been great with me.
“I’ve got four first-team goals this year and I’m quite happy with that considering I haven’t started many games and I’ve had injuries.
“I’m always trying to score more, but for my first season, it’s good to be scoring.
“It’s a great feeling to win the award because it’s from the fans and that’s who you want to impress and make happy.
“The fans come here week-in, week-out, and they’ve been great all season – home and away.
“For them to vote for me is a very nice feeling and I’m grateful for that.”
Watmore’s fearlessness has at times been a breath of fresh air this season, amidst the drudgery and anxiety of the relegation dogfight.
However, the England U21 international insists that playing a part in a survival battle has provided a steep learning curve in his footballing education.
And he is now part of a Sunderland dressing room which very much has the confidence and determination to complete a successful escape from the drop.
“It has been a difficult season for us, but if anything, it’s a good experience for me,” added Watmore.
“In football, you’re going to experience all kinds of highs and lows and you’ve got to get used to both.
“I think we’ve done that well. We’ve recovered and now we need to make sure we kick on and finish the season on a high.
“It’s a great dressing room.
“I know a lot of us say it all the time, but it’s very true.
“I haven’t been in many others, but it’s a great one to break through in.
“These lads are so good with you and they’ve got so much experience and talent.
“I’m trying to tap into that and make sure I benefit from that.”