Duncan Watmore interview: Middlesbrough's comeback kid on the rise again

Sky Sports exclusive: Middlesbrough's Duncan Watmore discusses staying fit after his release from Sunderland, his academic exploits and why staying on Teesside was "a no-brainer"; Watch Middlesbrough vs Blackburn Rovers live on Sky Sports Football on Sunday from 2.45pm; kick-off 3pm

The 26-year-old joined Middlesbrough, initially on a short-term contract, in November 2020

As Duncan Watmore discusses his Sky Bet Championship Player of the Month award for December, in an interview delayed after the 26-year-old recently contracted coronavirus, one word crops up more than any other.

Enjoyment. It's easy to understand why.

Last June, he was released by Sunderland after seven years on Wearside. The raw talent that attracted the Black Cats to pluck him from National League North outfit Altrincham in 2013 shone through in fleeting glimpses, yet two serious knee injuries restricted him to just six appearances between December 2016 and December 2018.

In the last two seasons in League One, he played a bit-part role again and left having played just 87 games in all competitions across seven seasons. It would have been enough to dampen anyone's spirits, but given the hurdles he'd already cleared, Watmore wasn't prepared to let his career slip away.

"When coronavirus first hit, I felt like I was in a good position with my body, but there was no football allowed to be played and then I couldn't get a club for a few months," he explains in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports.

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"I knew what my body could do and I was working really hard in the off-season and on my own when I didn't have a club to stay as fit as possible so I could hit the ground running wherever I went. All of my training was on my own. I had some help from some sports scientists and physios I know and I just tried to stay as fit and practical towards football fitness as I could.

"It was difficult in some ways but I've always enjoyed running and I've always enjoyed staying fit so it's something I wanted to do. When you look at the state of the world, people are losing jobs and struggling and I was confident that a club would come around, so I couldn't be the one sulking. I just had to do what I could and that was work hard and be ready for when a club did come in for me."

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The 26-year-old has scored five goals in 10 games for Neil Warnock's men so far this term
Image: The 26-year-old has scored five goals in 10 games for Neil Warnock's men so far this term

On November 17, they did. His chance came just 30 miles away with Middlesbrough, who handed him a short-term deal to allow him to get back on track.

"My agent contacted me and said to go and train with Boro for a couple of weeks as they wanted to have a look at me, to see where I was at. I was obviously really excited about that," he says.

"I started training, enjoyed the experience and felt sharper and sharper the more I trained. They couldn't sign me for a couple of weeks, so I had to train for four weeks before I could sign.

"In hindsight, that was no bad thing as it got me up to speed and even though I'd done all that work on my own, it's not the same as recreating that high-intensity matchday or training environment. I felt that by the time I could sign and play games, I could hit the ground running."

Boro handed Watmore a two-and-a-half year contract extension in early January, tying him to the club until 2023
Image: Boro handed Watmore a two-and-a-half-year contract extension in early January, tying him to the club until 2023

Within the first half-hour of his debut eight days later, he had an assist to his name after setting up Britt Assombalonga's opener in a 3-0 win over Derby. It was his doubles against Swansea, on December 2, and Millwall, on December 12, that really captured Boro fans' imagination.

Given his form and his temporary affiliation with Boro, it was a formality that potential Premier League suitors would begin to take an interest. West Brom and Burnley were touted, as were fellow Championship side Stoke.

On January 7, however, Watmore put an end to speculation when he signed a new two-and-a-half-year contract at the Riverside Stadium.

"It was a bit of a no-brainer to extend my contract here and I'm very grateful. There was a sense of satisfaction and achievement after working so hard to get in a good position. That's why you put in all the work and that's why you make the sacrifices you do because you want to be playing football.

"It feels very good [to be playing regularly again]. I'm very grateful to Boro for giving me that opportunity and I've really enjoyed it. It's a fantastic club with a great manager, staff and players.

Watmore made less than 100 appearances during an injury-hit seven years on Wearside
Image: He made less than 100 appearances for Sunderland during an injury-hit seven years on Wearside

"Neil (Warnock) has been brilliant. He showed a lot of faith in me in the start by bringing me in, trusting me and giving me minutes on the pitch and I've just really enjoyed working for him. He's a very experienced and successful manager. He's very funny, very interesting and knows a lot about the game. You can learn a lot from him."

With five goals in 10 games, Watmore has already bettered any return since he turned professional in 2013, yet while everything is currently going to plan, his exploits in the academic world mean he's prepared should the plan go awry.

In December 2015, he graduated from Newcastle University with a first-class honours degree in Economics & Business Management and, next week, he graduates from York University with a Distinction in an International Business Leadership and Management Masters.

"That's something I've done alongside my football for the past two-and-a-half years and I've really enjoyed that," he continues. "One of my motivations for doing it was so that if football did end because of injuries or whatever, I had a different career path to go down.

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Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship match between Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough

"Obviously I can't go to a physical graduation so I can't go and get the gown and the hat on but I can do the online one and get the certificate!"

For now, he's dead set on staying fit in order to repay Middlesbrough's faith.

"I try and take it day-by-day. I don't look too far into the future. I just want to try and stay fit and play football for Middlesbrough Football Club. It's nice to have that security in the future but I've got to earn that each day.

"I'm very much of the opinion that you can never take what you've got for granted. After the injuries I had, I thought I probably wouldn't be playing football again and I'd have to stop. The fact that I'm playing again and enjoying it is exactly what I wanted from the game."

It's hard not to feel a sense of satisfaction that Duncan Watmore is doing just that.

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