From seminars to Sunderland: Young footballer Duncan Watmore on the unique challenges of balancing top-level sport with a full-time degree in economics


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The Independent Online

Duncan Watmore is no ordinary footballer. In his words, "perhaps more Ford than Ferrari", the mild mannered 20-year-old, currently on loan at Hibernian from Sunderland, is actually studying for a degree in economics.

Just last season Duncan was plying his trade semi-professionally at Conference North side Altrincham in the sixth tier of English football, while attending the University of Manchester. But since impressing Sunderland’s scouts last May, he has made the giant leap to the Premier League and was even handed his first team debut against Carlisle in this year's FA Cup. "It was a fantastic moment," he beams. "Every kid dreams of playing football at this level and to have been given this opportunity is just incredible."

Determined to continue his studies alongside a burgeoning football career, Duncan has also transferred to Newcastle University to complete his degree in a hectic spell that says much for the level-headed teenager who clearly has a bright future ahead of him. Now on loan at Hibs until the end of the season, Duncan manages the task of commuting to Newcastle, while trying to secure a starting spot under the former England captain and current Hibs manager Terry Butcher.

“I won’t pretend it’s not difficult, but thanks to modern technology, I am able to access a lot of the course material online. I go to what lectures I can and fit my work around my training”, explains Duncan, who is grateful that the university staff is so accommodating to his unique circumstances.

Not tempted to give up his degree when Sunderland came calling, Duncan stresses the importance of having a contingency plan: “While football is very much my priority, I had already started a degree and it’s not in my nature to give up. I know some people will argue that I could have gone back to education later if football didn’t work out but I didn’t fancy being a fresher in my mid-twenties.

"When you play football professionally, it's really intense, so in some ways it's actually a nice distraction for me to have something that I'm genuinely interested in, and isn't directly related to football."

However, if Sunderland professional development coach Kevin Ball's comments are anything to go by, Duncan won't be leaving the game any time soon: "He's so exciting it's frightening; he's got the best balance I've ever seen," said Ball after Duncan's starring role in a 5-0 win for Sunderland reserves over Hartlepool earlier this season.  

Of course, Duncan isn't the only footballer to be studying for a degree. Other bright sparks include Liverpool's Glen Johnson, who is taking a BSc in maths from the Open University, and Manchester United's Juan Mata, who is studying for two distance learning courses in marketing and sport science with the University of Madrid. QPR midfielder Joey Barton, meanwhile, ponders Philosophy part-time at Roehampton.

What makes Duncan unique though, is actually his similarity to others his age. Despite the looming prospect of Premier League celebrity, he still enjoys a game of FIFA or pub punditry, even if he is limited to soft drinks.

Indeed, between the essays, assignments and neknominations, the life of a student can often demand some form of release. Fluorescent shots and discount drinks deals are popular coping mechanisms. So, with professional football factored in, how exactly is Duncan’s social life?

He laughs nervously. "To tell you truth, it's a bit restricted. I've had one night out in seven months and my freshers' week ended with an away day to Middlesbrough for Sunderland reserves. It's not a complaint though; it's sacrifice I'm definitely willing to make and I'm sure plenty of lads would share a similar opinion."

So, what does the future hold for Duncan Watmore? "Hopefully, this loan spell at Hibs will get me some regular football; then next season I can concentrate on breaking into the first team at Sunderland and of course get my 2.1!"  

And what's it like being a Sunderland player studying in Newcastle? "I've only made the mistake of wearing my training top into town once," he laughs.