Duncan Watmore and Paddy McNair formed an on-field double act before they were thrust together off it by cruciate knee ligament injuries suffered within a week of one another late last year.
So it is fitting that when McNair makes his comeback at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night, Watmore will be alongside him.
Northern Ireland international McNair is due to play his first football of 2017 against Hertha Berlin in the Premier League International Cup a week-and-a-half after Watmore’s first-team return. Cruciate knee ligament injuries were once career-enders, and Watmore admits the road back would have been a lot tougher if either had hobbled it alone.
“Neither of us wanted an injury like that, obviously, but the fact it happened so close together was a blessing in disguise,” says Watmore, a year older at 23. “I don’t know if it was for Binners (Dave Binningsley), our rehab physio – he had a lot on his hands with my and Paddy joking about the place for nine or ten months – but he’s been great as well. As a three we got on with our work and all the other staff who have come into it have been great with me and Pad as well. I’m sure he’d say exactly the same.
“It had worked well in terms of pushing each other and being there for each other.”
What made it crueller was that Watmore and McNair, one of David Moyes’ first signings, were just starting to find their feet.
“Against QPR in the (League) Cup last year we had a one-two and he scored so we’ve recreated that a lot in the gym over the past ten months!” smiles Watmore, dressed in a woolly jumper and ripped jeans. “He’s playing 45 minutes and it will be nice to play with him.
“A lot of the time you don’t think about it (your comeback), you just get on with your rehab because thinking about it in the first month when you’ve got ten ahead is a bit demoralising. You just take it step by step but as you get closer you definitely start thinking about being back on the pitch and hopefully making a difference.”
Recovering from a cruciate knee ligament injury is perhaps the biggest mental test a footballer can face. Both suffered setbacks – Watmore’s in April, McNair’s during pre-season. It has sorely tested both men’s patience.
“I was running from April, maybe even the end of March, then I had to lay off for a couple of months before I started again,” explains Watmore. “I’ve been running for a long, long time, all in a straight line, not even getting close to touching a ball.
“You’re doing laps of the pitch and you see the first team getting ready for games, frustration is probably the main word because you can’t change it. All you can do is be the fittest you can be and I feel good. Match-fitness will just come with games but in my running and training, I feel really good.
“You’ve got to listen to the physios because they know best and the manager (Simon Grayson) has been great in that respect, he’s listened to them as well. Sometimes you can get rushed back and that’s when you can have a recurrence. I’ve been patient for nine months so why not be for another couple of weeks?
“I came back against (Manchester) City (in Premier League Two last month) and played 45 (minutes), then went 70 (against West Ham United), 11 v 11, come off the bench for the first team (at Preston North End in the last game), I’ll play for the under-23s again on Tuesday night. That’s three or four games before I’m considered for starting probably, which is a good place to be.”
McNair will almost certainly have to go through a similar process, which is why Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill is not expecting to have him for November’s World Cup qualifying play-off. Even then it will take time for both to get back to the players they were.
“I’ve been told – and it’s not to be pessimistic, the surgeon has always been very realistic – that even this season the knee might not feel the same, it will take time but the more gym you do, the more you play, the more confident you get with it, it will come,” he says. “I’m going into it with a positive attitude, that I can get back and improve, but a realistic one too.”
Having had longer to win the fans over with his direct dribbling, Watmore’s is the return they have been longing for. It was a relief, then, that his substitute appearance in a 2-2 draw at Deepdale instantly made the team look better.
“The reception I got was great, I was so pleased, I really enjoyed it,” he says. “I was frustrated at the same time, I thought we could have got the win, we played well, created lots of chances. I felt like there was a couple of decisions didn’t go my way but that’s just part of the game.
“You can always have doubts and fears because its such a serious knee injury, time will tell if I can get back to where I was because I felt like I was playing really good football before I got injured. It takes time, but I’m willing to be patient.”