DUNCAN WATMORE returns to first-team action with Sunderland tomorrow, but the winger will be encouraged to continue taking things slowly as he approaches the end of his injury hell.

Watmore will make his first senior start for more than 12 months when the Black Cats host Notts County in the last-32 of the Checktrade Trophy tomorrow night, having spent the last year recovering from a second cruciate ligament operation.

Having battled back from one bout of cruciate surgery, the 24-year-old was forced to undergo another operation after suffering a recurrence of the problem last November.

He played for almost an hour of an Under-23s game with Middlesbrough last month, and tomorrow’s outing at the Stadium of Light marks the latest important staging post in his recovery.

“Duncan’s in the squad and he’ll start the game,” confirmed Sunderland assistant boss James Fowler. “It’s important for him to get some more game time, and we’ll see how he feels at half-time and monitor it from there.

“It’s just really good for him to be back involved in competitive action. It’s a long-term process for him, but it’ll be great for him to be back in the stadium, in front of a decent crowd, in a competitive game.

“Duncan is somebody that loves football. He loves training, so obviously with the injury problems he’s had for the last couple of seasons, he’s just relishing being back involved.

“In terms of his attitude and application in training, I don’t think it would matter whether he’s been out injured or not, he’s always one that’s bang on. But he’s obviously got that little bit more excitement because he’s now getting the rewards for all the hard work he’s been putting in. He’s just desperate to get back out on the pitch.”

Watmore will form part of a much-changed Sunderland side, and his presence in the starting line-up will add some welcome excitement to the Black Cats’ latest Checkatrade outing.

A former England Under-21 international, Watmore impressed in the Premier League after breaking into Sunderland’s starting line-up under Sam Allardyce, and looked to be rediscovering his best form in the Championship under Chris Coleman last season prior to suffering his second major setback.

He would be a huge asset at League One if he was able to recapture anything close to his best, but Sunderland’s coaching staff do not want to look too far ahead given the extent of his injury issues over the last two years.

“We can see he’s been a big player, but it’s important we can see a longer-term picture with him as well,” said Fowler. “I know he was back pretty quick last time, and although that wasn’t anything to do with his problem reoccurring, it’s important we look after him.

“We definitely think he’ll add to the squad and the first team when he’s back, but it’s important we allow him the time he needs to make sure he’s feeling 100 per cent fit physically, and also mentally ready to go. It’s obviously different tempos and expectations for league games than it maybe is for the Checkatrade.”

Robbin Ruiter will replace Jon McLaughlin in goal tomorrow, with Glenn Loovens set to return to the heart of the back four and Bali Mumba expected to start in midfield.

Luke O’Nien will retain his starting place, having kicked off Saturday’s FA Cup draw at Walsall, but Chris Maguire will not be risked despite returning to training after having to withdraw because of a problem during the warm-up at the Bescot Stadium.

Donald Love will also be absent tomorrow, and the former Manchester United defender is set to be sidelined until February after undergoing an ankle operation.

“Donald will probably be out for a couple of months,” said Fowler. “He’s had a small operation to cure an ankle problem that’s been plaguing him for the majority of the season.

“It’s been a frustrating one for him, it’s been a bit stop-start, but hopefully now it’s been tidied up, he can move forward. He’ll be out for a month or two, but hopefully that will be him good to go when he’s back.”