WHEN Duncan Watmore left Sunderland in the summer, he outlined one ambition for the rest of his footballing career. “I want to create some really good new memories on the pitch,” he said, as he looked ahead to a life away from Wearside.

Watmore has always been an honest, intelligent thinker, after all he boasts a first-class honours degree in economics and business management, so the use of the phrase ‘on the pitch’ was telling. Through no fault of his own, the 26-year-old was forced to spend a huge chunk of his seven-year Sunderland career struggling on the sidelines. Now, finally, he has the chance to start making up for all that lost time.

Any story of Watmore’s career so far will inevitably read like a medical textbook, but before reflecting on the battles the forward has had to overcome, it is important not to lose sight of just how exciting a prospect he was when he first burst onto the scene at Sunderland.

Expectations were understandably low when he joined the Black Cats from non-league Altrincham in the summer of 2013, but just seven months later he was making his debut under Gus Poyet as a fresh-faced 19-year-old in an FA Cup win over Carlisle United.

His league debut came at the start of the 2015-16 season, by which time he had already received his maiden call-up to England Under-21s, but it was the arrival of Sam Allardyce to replace Dick Advocaat that saw his fortunes really ignite.

Allardyce quickly appreciated Watmore’s immense potential, the explosive speed, boundless energy and raw dribbling acumen that made him such an exciting talent. He became a staple of the first team, producing arguably his best display in a Sunderland shirt when he marked his return from a two-month ankle lay-off with a game-changing second-half substitute appearance in a 3-0 win at Norwich that did so much to secure the Black Cats’ Premier League survival.

The following campaign promised to be a breakthrough season, but after featuring in the opening 14 league games, disaster struck when Watmore damaged his cruciate ligaments in a December home game against Leicester City. He didn’t know it at the time, but his footballing career, indeed his life, would never be the same again.

Watmore was sidelined for almost 12 months, and by the time he returned, Sunderland had tumbled into the Championship. Nevertheless, a drop into the second tier should have afforded him an opportunity to showcase his talents, but on his fourth start after returning, he broke down again in a home game against Millwall. Having spent a year recovering from cruciate surgery, another serious knee-ligament injury meant he was back to square one.

Some players might have thrown in the towel at that stage, but after sitting out another 13 months, Watmore returned midway through the season that would see Sunderland relegated to League One.

Understandably, he struggled to rediscover the form and dynamism that had made him so effective during his early years, and as he settled into life under Jack Ross in League One, so a succession of niggling injuries held him back. After more than two years of inactivity, it was almost certainly just his body acclimatising to life as a professional sportsman once again, but it meant first Ross and then Phil Parkinson were reluctant to put too much faith in him.

He struggled to hold down a place in Sunderland’s first team, and given his lack of action last season, the writing was on the wall long before the Black Cats confirmed he would not be offered a new contract. As a player who had signed a new deal during the club’s time in the Premier League, there was undoubtedly a financial angle to Sunderland’s decision.

Watmore is not the same player he was when he first broke through with the Black Cats, but even last season, there were enough flashes of flair and creativity to suggest Middlesbrough have made a wise decision to offer him a short-term deal. He will certainly not be lacking motivation as he attempts to get his career back on track.

“I’ve been a long time injury free now,” said Watmore. “I just want to work hard and show what I can do.” After all he has been through, no one would begrudge him that.