Duncan Watmore knows assumptions can be dangerous.
The young Sunderland winger with the first-class honours degree in economics and business management from Newcastle University is a bit fed up with being portrayed as a rare brainbox in an intellectual desert.
It explains why Watmore seems constantly anxious to point out that “you can’t get by in professional football without intelligence, of one form or another,” and why he is mildly irked to see his profession compared unfavourably with Britain’s all-conquering Olympians.
“The Olympians work very, very hard and sacrifice everything for four years in order to give it their best shot,” says the 22-year-old England Under‑21 international as he prepares for Sunday’s north-east derby at home to Middlesbrough.
“It’s a very intense regime and I’ve got a lot of respect for them. Can football learn from them? I suppose, yes, in some respects, if players aren’t working hard enough, you can learn. But from what I see here, our players are very dedicated and give up a lot to be as good as they can.
“The Olympians are people to look up to, but we’re working hard too. It’s a lazy stereotype just to say that footballers turn up, kick a ball for a couple of hours and then head home.”
One of the pleasures Watmore has sacrificed is staying up into the early hours in order to catch the action from Rio. “Watching the Olympics is taking up a lot of my spare time,” he says. “But I’ve had to miss all the athletics finals in the middle of the night because of training the next morning. Back in my student days I’d have been up all night.”
Watmore displayed intense personal discipline to combine his studies with life as a professional footballer after swapping non-league Altrincham for Sunderland in 2013 and is duly enjoying the luxury of finally having some free time after training.
With his mother, Georgina, a rector and his father, Ian, a former chief executive of the Football Association, Watmore – who may eventually return to academia and study for a master’s degree – could easily have been cast as the odd one out in the dressing room.
Instead he appears extremely popular with his Sunderland team-mates who attended a special ceremony organised last December by Sam Allardyce, the club’s former manager, to mark his graduation.
England’s coach made a big show of assembling the entire squad and presenting Watmore with an elaborate scroll. “You lads wouldn’t know what one of these is,” said Allardyce, attempting to impart an important lesson. “But you should educate yourselves. Life’s about learning.”
Life at Sunderland in recent years has been mainly about turbulence and relentless change. David Moyes is the fifth manager Watmore has played under on Wearside where Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat and Allardyce have come and gone since his arrival.
“I was sad to see Sam go,” he says. “He was really good, he gave me a lot of chances and we did well as a team. We were all sad to lose him, but the transition to the new manager has been absolutely fine. David Moyes has come in and everyone’s been very impressed. I’m enjoying it.
“He and Sam impress me in slightly different ways, but they’re two of the best managers I’ve worked with and David Moyes is already giving some of our young players a chance; that’s good to see.”
So far Moyes has proved extremely hands on. “He likes to take a lot of the sessions himself,” says Watmore. “It helps us get to know him and vice versa. We’re learning what he likes and what he doesn’t like.”
Despite starting last Saturday’s narrow defeat at Manchester City, he now faces competition from Wahbi Khazri and Adnan Januzaj, the latter recently imported from Manchester United on a season-long loan, but remains unfazed.
“My best performances have probably been as an impact sub,” he says. “My game’s quite well suited to that. Last season when we needed the game changing I could sometimes do that. If I’m impacting matches well from the bench I’m happy, but I want to start more this season. The goal is to play more football.”
Pacy, direct and possessing adhesive control, Watmore has been likened to a young Gareth Bale by Sunderland’s Jermain Defoe, but he knows he cannot afford to tread water. “I’m no longer an unknown quantity,” he says. “That provides a challenge as you can’t really surprise people very much. I’ve got to adapt, to change my game as much as possible and keep trying to improve.”
He has come a long way since being offloaded by Manchester United’s juniors as a 13-year-old, but is anxious that Sunderland embark on a similarly upward trajectory. Constant relegation battles are becoming debilitating and their dismal record of having failed to win a Premier League game in August for the past five years needs breaking.
“I know we say this every year, but we’ve been playing well for most of 2016 and there’s a lot of confidence around the place that we can avoid another struggle,” says Watmore. “If we can start well, it will help us avoid falling into that trap. Middlesbrough look like a good side and Sunday will be a tough test but early points on the board is the key.”
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