After seven years, it’s the end of an era for Duncan Watmore.
The forward – who joined Sunderland as a teenager, still studying at university and fresh from non-league – will be departing Wearside this summer.
He leaves an England youth international, with close to 50 Premier League appearances under his belt and an ever-growing reputation in the game.
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But more than anything, Watmore leaves a fan of Sunderland – the club, and the city.
“It’s crazy when I think about how far I’ve come from when I was 19 playing non-league football,” he tells the Echo, in his first interview since his exit was confirmed.
“I’ll always be forever grateful to Sunderland for giving me this opportunity. I’ve achieved so much with the club, on a personal and a team level, and I’m just so grateful for them giving me that opportunity.
“Obviously I would have liked to have done more. I wanted to end my time at the club with promotion, that was always my ambition, so I am sad in that respect - because the club deserves so much more.
“It’s a Premier League club in my opinion. Everything about the club and the fanbase is just fantastic, and it’s just sad that I couldn’t end my time here on a positive note.
“It’s just been a brilliant seven years that I’ll always be so grateful for.”
For while Watmore leaves Sunderland at their lowest ebb, he was a key cog in some of the club’s more memorable moments of recent years.
Under Sam Allardyce, he became a regular starter – helping the Black Cats to the most dramatic of great escapes.
That remains one of the forward’s fondest memories of his time on Wearside, as too does his Premier League debut. For while Sunderland lost to Norwich City, it proved a dream debut for Watmore – who came off the bench to score within minutes of his introduction.
It topped off a meteoric rise from non-league to the top flight, and announced the forward’s arrival in the North East.
“Scoring on my Premier League debut was just amazing.
“Just getting a chance in the Premier League was something that I never thought I’d have when I was a couple of years younger, so to get that chance and then to score was just an amazing feeling.
“But my best memory was definitely when we stayed up with Sam Allardyce.
“We beat Everton 3-0 and relegated Newcastle - and I’ve never felt an atmosphere like it. It was absolutely rocking and I’ll remember that until the day I die. It’s the best I’ve played in by a million miles.
“Even though I only played 15 or 20 minutes at the end, it was just that moment, that feeling of the atmosphere, the fans, the euphoria - I’ll always remember that.”
Allardyce was one of ten permanent managers who have led Sunderland during Watmore’s time at the club – and the 26-year-old had nothing but praise for all of the occupants of the Stadium of Light hotseat who helped shape his career trajectory.
“I enjoyed working under all the managers, I genuinely did.
“Everyone brought their own style and their own way of doing things and I always tried to adapt and do my best for that manager.
“Obviously it’s a shame that there were ten managers, because that obviously reflects back on the players and as players we take the responsibility for that.
“It’s never nice to experience so many managers, but I have worked under some great ones.
“Sam Allardyce gave me the most games in the season we stayed up, and David Moyes also trusted me the next season. Before I had my knee injury I was playing every week, starting and thoroughly enjoying it.
“That was my main run of form and when I felt best in my game, and it was unfortunate the injuries happened.”
Watmore’s run of injuries was as unfortunate as it was untimely – the forward seeing his run in the first-team prematurely halted.
But the forward says the fact he was able to return to playing professional football at all is testament to the care he received from staff at the Academy of Light – and, of course, the’s supporters.
“That’s one of the things I’m most grateful for.
“Through no fault of my own, my knee just went. And then it went again.
“But the fans and the staff who were working with me at the club, I’m so grateful to them because that’s what enabled me to be playing football now. If I don’t get that support and level of care, injuries like that can kill careers.
“Once I’d done the first knee, I was hoping that was it. I’d do ten months of work and just get fitter and fitter, but then I did the next one within a month and that was another 13 months.
“Then I had a bad tackle on my ankle and then it was just constant niggles because I wasn’t robust enough after all the rehab I did with my knee.
“I did all I could but it takes a while to get back to that match level of fitness and that robustness.
“It’s just frustrating that I couldn’t quite kick-on this season, but I’m so grateful for the care, patience and support I got from everyone at the club.”
Particularly tough for Watmore was being forced to watch on as Sunderland suffered back-to-back relegations.
For someone who came to love the football club, it proved difficult to watch on powerless – unable to influence what was unfolding on the field.
“You go to the games, you support the lads the best you can - but you can’t do anything,” Watmore explains.
“You just feel a bit useless and it’s not a nice feeling.
“It’s something that I am gutted about, but it’s something I just have to accept. I was doing everything I could to be fit but my body just wasn’t having it.
“It was awful and it was hard mentally as well, but there are obviously bigger things going on in the world - so I can’t be too down about my injuries.”
But while Watmore was unable to have an impact on the pitch while sidelined, he certainly made an impact in the community.
The forward regularly engaged in community work with the Foundation of Light and the Football Foundation. His involvement in the local area went above and beyond official club appearances, too. In December of last year, he and his family donated £1,000 to the Sunderland Community Soup Kitchen having been inspired by the generosity of the club’s supporters.
Watmore was also a regular visitor to St Oswald’s Hospice where he would happily bring signed shirts aplenty and chat with Sunderland supporters. He wanted no publicity, this was simply about repaying an area which had welcomed him with open arms.
“I’m very passionate about that and it’s always something I’ll do,” says Watmore.
“I felt that I definitely owed it to the community of Sunderland with everything they’ve given to me, I felt it was the least I could do to help the Foundation of Light and the community in projects whenever I could.
“I get enjoyment out of it, because when you can see people and you can help - and fortunately as footballers we are in a position to help - we have that platform to cheer people up and raise awareness.
“There’s lots of things we can do as footballers, so my personal opinion is that you need to make the most of that.
“I enjoyed doing that so much, because the Foundation of Light does wonderful work for the community and it was great to be a part of.”
It was acts such as these that made the attacker so much more than your average footballer, and the antithesis of many players who have arrived on Wearside over the last decade.
And it’s also a reason why his departure is tinged with more than a hint of sadness on both sides.
Yet when he looks back on his time at Sunderland, Watmore will only remember the happy times.
He’ll remember a club and community that welcomed him as one of their own, and stuck by him through the tough times.
He’ll remember the friends made and the memories created, both on and off the field.
But more than anything – he’ll remember how grateful he was to represent Sunderland AFC.
“My main message to everyone at Sunderland is just thank you,” he concludes.
“I’m so grateful for how the fans embraced me when I came up here from Altrincham, and how amazing and patient they’ve been with me throughout the injuries I’ve suffered.
“They’ve always been so good around the place, they’re so polite and friendly and I’m just very grateful for that.
“The same goes for the staff and players who I’ve worked with day in, day out. They’ve been amazing with me.
“It’s such a friendly club and I’m definitely going to miss it. I’ve definitely made friends for life and I’ll be sad to go, but I wish everyone the very best.”