WHEN Duncan Watmore was terrorising opposition defences in the Premier League, a 67-minute run-out in the Checkatrade Trophy was probably not his idea of the ideal way to spend an evening.

A 381-day absence can do strange things though, and while Watmore will hope to go on to bigger and better things now he has recovered from a second bout of knee surgery, an appearance against Notts County still represented a much better experience than another session on the treatment table. Especially as it turned out to be a winning one.

Watmore set up Sunderland’s opening goal as they cruised through to the last 16 of the Checkatrade Trophy, beating the offside trap to fire in a shot that resulted in Dan Jones bundling the ball into his own net.

Jerome Sinclair added a second from the penalty spot with 17 minutes left, and while the Black Cats did not really have to get out of second gear to beat a Notts County side rooted in the League Two relegation zone, Jack Ross was able to watch his side enjoy another satisfactory night.

Sunderland’s unbeaten run now extends to 16 matches in all competitions, proof of both their quality at League One level and their durability despite the demands of a fixture list that has now seen them play 26 games already this season.

Last night’s victory takes Sunderland to within three more wins of a place at Wembley, but the occasion was always going to be most notable for Watmore’s return.

Successive cruciate ligament operations have limited the 24-year-old to just four senior starts in the space of 24 months, but having been patiently nursed back to full fitness after sustaining his latest injury last November, he will be understandably desperate to make up for lost time.

Whether he can ever return to the standards that earned him international recognition with England Under-21s remains to be seen, but this was a pleasing enough comeback, with plenty of the trademark bursts of pace that made him such a potent asset when Sunderland were strutting their stuff in the Premier League.

Playing in an attacking role alongside Sinclair, Watmore set up his side’s opening goal with a deft spin away from his marker and continued to look to break behind the Notts County defence. He came close to scoring again shortly before the hour mark, and while he was tiring by the time he was replaced in the 67th minute, his evening could not have gone much better. Ross will want to tread carefully with him, but on this evidence, a place in Sunderland’s first-choice League One line-up cannot be too far away.

Crucially, Watmore withstood a number of fairly hefty challenges, proving his knee problems have not left a mental mark, and his popularity within the Black Cats squad was emphasised by the way in which he was embraced when he helped break the deadlock midway through the first half.

Dylan McGeouch’s through ball enabled him to spin away from his marker, and while his shot from inside the area was saved by Notts County goalkeeper Ross Fitzsimons, the ball rebounded off a helpless Jones before finding the net.

It was an unfortunate way for the visitors to concede, but Sunderland’s lead was hardly undeserved. With Bryan Oviedo finding acres of space in his left wing-back role, and Luke O’Nien driving forward purposefully from a three-man midfield, the hosts should really have been further ahead at the interval.

Max Power curled narrowly over the crossbar from the corner of the box, Sinclair was similarly wasteful after breaking towards the edge of the area, and when Oviedo found the target on the stroke of half-time, Fitzsimons was equal to his shot, tipping the ball over the top.

Notts County were nowhere near as threatening, although in fairness to Neal Ardley’s side, they did not look a team in desperate trouble at the foot of the League Two table either.

Indeed, the visitors would have levelled shortly after the half-hour mark had Robbin Ruiter not got down superbly to claw away Kristian Dennis’ downward header after the striker was afforded too much space from Jones’ cross.

Sunderland fielded 20-year-old Jack Bainbridge as one of their three centre-halves, and the youngster, who has previously spent time in the academies of both Everton and Swansea City, coped admirably. His poise in possession was especially commendable given his lack of senior experience.

The only real disappointment from a home perspective will have been the failure to put the game to bed, which would have enabled Ross to make changes and rest some of his starters at an earlier stage of the evening.

Watmore tried his best to extend his side’s advantage, but while a slick one-two with O’Nien in the 58th minute opened up the Notts County defence, his left-footed shot was saved by Fitzsimons.

The returnee departed nine minutes later, and his replacement, Benji Kimpioka, was the key factor in Sunderland eventually doubling their lead with 17 minutes left.

Kimpioka scored his first senior goal in Sunderland’s Checkatrade group-stage win over Carlisle, and it did not take him long to make his mark again last night.

Breaking into the right-hand side of the area, Kimpioka was felled from behind by a sliding challenge from Jones. He would no doubt have liked the opportunity to take the resultant penalty, but seniority ruled and Sinclair stepped up to slot home his second goal in a Sunderland shirt.