DUNCAN WATMORE is set to make his eagerly-awaited first-team return in Sunderland’s Checkatrade Trophy game with Notts County next Tuesday.

The Black Cats winger played for 57 minutes of Monday’s Under-23s game with Middlesbrough, marking his return to competitive action following an injury lay-off of more than 12 months.

Having already recovered from one cruciate ligament operation, Watmore was forced to undergo surgery for the same problem last autumn.

He returned to full training at the start of the month, and while he missed a penalty on Monday night, his involvement in the game at Eppleton marked an important step on his comeback trail.

His return to the first team will be another significant step forward, and while he will not be involved in Saturday’s FA Cup second-round game at Walsall, he has been pencilled in for next week’s Checkatrade knock-out tie.

Sunderland boss Jack Ross said: “It was another big step for him, and he did well. It was a competitive game on Monday. All Under-23 games are competitive to an extent, but I think with it being a derby match, it had that bit of competitiveness about it.

“He had to withstand challenges in it that were reflective of how a normal game will be. He trained again today, and obviously we’ve look at the Checkatrade game on Tuesday, and potentially his involvement in that.

“If he does become involved in that, it’s another really big step for him because it is a first-team game. That’s him pretty much there, which is brilliant for us, and brilliant for him, first and foremost.

Prior to returning to Checkatrade action, Sunderland head to the Bescott Stadium for the second weekend in a row, looking to continue their interest in the FA Cup.

The Black Cats continue to be involved on three different fronts, but with his side having racked up a 14-game unbeaten run in all competitions, Ross is happy to see the games continue to come thick and fast.

He said: “I just want to continue to progress in whatever we’re playing in. I said before the first round (of the FA Cup) that I would never pretend that promotion isn’t the absolute priority for us, and that we would sacrifice everything else for that.

“But we want to continue to progress in all the tournaments we’re involved in. For me, this tournament is still a big tournament.

“To progress in it, we’re going to have to work harder than we’ve had to in a lot of recent years, just because of when we entered the tournament, but the incentive is there to progress to the next round, regardless of whether other teams are entering the competition then or not.

“We just want to keep progressing in the tournament – I don’t want to come out of it to ease fixture congestion, I want us to stay in it for as long as we can.”