JACK ROSS is delighted that Duncan Watmore’s patience has been rewarded with a successful return to Sunderland’s first team.

Watmore made his first senior appearance for more than a year last night as the Black Cats beat Notts County 2-0 to claim a place in Friday’s last-16 draw in the Checkatrade Trophy.

The 24-year-old has battled his way back from two cruciate ligament operations, and had been desperate to feature in the senior squad from the moment he returned to the training ground a couple of months ago.

However, Sunderland’s medical staff felt it would be better to take things slowly, and the patient approach paid dividends as Watmore came through more than an hour of last night’s game at the Stadium of Light unscathed.

“His rehab path is a really interesting one,” said Black Cats boss Jack Ross. “He’s had the two injuries pretty close together, and this time we’ve always worked to the absolute latter end of the timescale for him coming back.

“We’ve been steadfast in that approach, and I would have continued with that even if we had been struggling for results. There’s a duty of care to him, and as a consequence of that, he’s been training with me for nearly eight weeks now, which is a long time.

“It’s a really good period, and within that period, he’s done all sorts. That just means he’s looked ready, and that was what he looked like tonight. Other than starting to tighten up after an hour, there was nothing else to suggest he had been out for that time period and that is brilliant for him.”

Watmore is unlikely to be involved in Saturday’s League One game at Accrington Stanley, but it will not be too much longer before he finds himself back in league action.

Given the quality of his performances in both the Premier League and Championship, his availability provides Ross with a massive boost ahead of the packed festive schedule, with the turn and run that set up last night’s opening goal serving up a thrilling reminder of his talent.

“The biggest compliment I can pay him is that it looked completely natural for him,” added Ross.  “All his decision-making looked natural, it didn’t look as though there was any hesitation to anything he did.

“That’s testament to the work he’s done, but also how patient we’ve all been, him included, to get him back at the right time. It’s another huge step forward for him. He’s pretty much there now, which is fantastic for him first and foremost, but also for us as a club.”

Last night’s victory leaves Sunderland three wins away from a place in a Wembley final, and sets up the tantalising prospect of a last-16 clash with Newcastle’s Under-21s, who beat Macclesfield Town on penalties last night. The draw for the next round of the competition is regionalised, before teams from the north and south can meet each other from the quarter-finals onwards.

“We’ve always been aware that prize (a place at Wembley) is there, and I think that’s part of the reason why we’ve approached the competition in the way we have,” said Ross. “I would never have done it at the sacrifice of what we want to achieve in the league, but the timing of the games and where we’ve been as a squad has probably worked in our favour.

“It’s as good as it could be for me, the fact that we’ve continued to progress in the tournament with that prize at stake, while being able to use all our squad within it as well.”

Sunderland’s latest victory extends the club’s unbeaten run to 16 matches, a sequence that merits considerable praise regardless of the level the games have been at.

“The players deserve an enormous amount of credit for that,” said Ross.  “There's been three competitions plus a lot of players that have been used.

“What I spoke to them before the game about was that none of those players had anything to prove to me. All they had to do is maintain the standards they achieve every day. They're part of a group that does that, that works hard every day, demands of each other and have this desire to keep the run going whoever is playing.”