CHRIS COLEMAN is confident Duncan Watmore will return a “better player” despite having undergone a second cruciate ligament operation that will rule him out of the rest of the season.

Watmore damaged his cruciates for the second time in a year during last weekend’s 2-2 draw with Millwall, and underwent surgery yesterday after scans confirmed the full extent of the damage.

Sunderland’s medical staff are reluctant to put a time frame on his recovery, but he will not play again this season and faces a battle to be fit for the start of pre-season training in the summer.

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Having ruptured his cruciates for a first time last December, the 23-year-old spent the best part of nine months battling his way back to full fitness, but managed just six senior appearances before sustaining further damage.

He is understandably distraught at his latest setback, but while he faces another long and lonely road back to recovery, Coleman has told him he will benefit from the experience in the long run.

“It’s so frustrating, and life is bad sometimes, because you get someone like that who is desperate to play, and that’s taken away from him,” said the Sunderland boss, who will preside over his second game in charge when he takes his side to fellow strugglers Burton Albion tomorrow. “He’s desperate to play football, and that’s been taken away.

“Maybe some others are not that desperate to play football. They’re capable and it’s there for them, but do they want to play football enough? Duncan Watmore wants to play football, and he wants to play for Sunderland, and now he won’t.

“This season, it’s probably not going to happen for him. But it’s not about that, it’s about taking his time, and coming back when he’s at his best and his strongest, and he’s enjoying his career. That’s all that is important for Duncan right now.

“I was speaking to Andy Croft who used to play with Wales, and he did his knee, got back and did it again. He said the mental side was harder than the physical.

“But when you get through it, it does make you better, it probably makes you more aware of how lucky we are to be in this industry. We are all playing football, and it’s the best job in the world. He will respect it even more, and he’ll be better when he gets back, I’m positive about that.”

Watmore’s injury came less than 24 hours after Coleman agreed to succeed Simon Grayson at the Stadium of Light, and immediately deflated some of the optimism that accompanied the former Wales’ boss arrival.

When Coleman first met his players on Sunday morning, he encountered a group who were deflated by the possibility of Watmore’s latest injury being serious. Unsurprisingly, there was even more disappointment when the winger’s worst fears were confirmed.

“That was the mood on Sunday when I arrived really,” said Coleman. “It was a case of, ‘Oh no’ because it was such devastating news for Duncan. Unfortunately, that’s just how it is sometimes, it’s just one thing after another.

“That was a real downer for everybody because he’s obviously very popular around the club and he’s the right type of player that you want. He’s a proper guy and a proper football man, that’s why it was such bad news.”

The challenge now is to start lifting the mood, and a positive result at Burton’s Pirelli Stadium would clearly help. In terms of stature, history and financial clout, Burton are arguably the smallest club in the Championship.

They will kick off tomorrow’s game two places and three points clear of Sunderland though, and Coleman accepts it would be wrong to assume an air of superiority when he is presiding over a team sitting at the bottom of the league.

“That’s a realistic way of looking at things,” he admitted. “People think, ‘Hold on a minute, it’s Sunderland’. Burton have come from the lower leagues, but they are a Championship club and we’re a Championship club. That’s realism, and that’s where we are.”

Nevertheless, it is surely imperative that Sunderland record what would only be a second league win of the season when they take on Nigel Clough’s side tomorrow.

They will be boosted by the return of Lee Cattermole, who has served a one-match ban, and Paddy McNair, who was not risked in Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat at Aston Villa because of the demands of playing two games in the space of four days.

However, Marc Wilson remains unavailable through injury and Didier Ndong also faces at least a fortnight on the sidelines with a knee problem.

“Catts was suspended so he’s fine and fit,” said Coleman. “Big McNair, on the back of the long-term injury he had, Saturday-Tuesday is too quick. But he should be okay for the weekend, so that’s good news for us.

“Marc Wilson still won’t be available. He had a kick and his calf is still a problem. Ndong is not ready, and he’s probably not going to be ready for two or three weeks. He has an issue with his knee that we need to get right, and we will get it right with the medical team, I’m sure.

“He didn’t play for Gabon when he went away, and then on top of that he had the unfortunate bad news with his family. But there’s an issue with his knee that we need to get right – he should be okay in a few weeks.”