A few weeks ago, when this article first took shape in its author’s mind, something along the lines of ‘Requiem for Lee’ might have been a more appropriate title. Amid much rewriting of Lee Cattermole’s Sunderland career, the aim was to cast a look back over his near decade on Wearside, with the hope of reminding people that things hadn’t always been quite so bad for Cattermole as they are now.
Or, rather, as they were a few weeks ago. For, in the period since, we have seen something of a resurrection from the former captain. A confident display in the Carabao Cup defeat to Sheffield Wednesday was swiftly followed by a performance against Scunthorpe that reminded everyone why it is that Cattermole has spent the vast majority of his career in England’s top tier. Another good outing at Gillingham followed before that most baffling of braces away to AFC Wimbledon. A man who had scored just two goals in nine years notched two in 17 minutes.
That game, and the victory Cattermole brought about, capped a remarkable turnaround for a man whom many had been keen to see ushered out the door earlier this summer. His Sunderland career arguably met its nadir as recently as July 14th during the pre-season draw at Hartlepool. Responding to jibes from the away end suggesting it would be in his best interests to depart the club sooner rather than later, Cattermole bit back, offering the view, in so many words, that he’d like nothing better.
The revisionism that followed was unfair on a player who has, for all his failings, given a lot to the club over the years. The idea propagated by some fairly prominent outlets, that the central midfielder has offered little of any worth since signing for Sunderland back in 2009, was faintly ridiculous and smacked of either ignorance or a lazy desire to paint everything associated with the previous regime in the worst possible light.
Yet it remained that there was much merit to those arguments which suggested his time on Wearside should come to an imminent conclusion. Nine months earlier, after picking up two yellow cards in as many minutes in a goalless draw at Wolves, many made a similar case (including yours truly).
The feeling then, similar to this summer, was that Cattermole was long past his best – even at a lower level of football. Battered and bruised through years of injuries, brought about in no small part by his own full-blooded approach, Sunderland’s former talisman was no longer the force he had been. Insufficiently technical on the ball and too slow to make up ground off it, it was difficult to see what he offered to a side that was already in the throes of being ripped up and started anew.
With demotion has come a new lease of life. An uninspiring start strengthened fears that Cattermole was finished at just about any level, but since that Sheffield Wednesday game he has been one Jack Ross’ strongest performers. With Max Power shuttling to his left and George Honeyman whirring in the space in front of him, Cattermole has been able to showcase both an often undervalued passing range and his undoubted ability to read the game. His distinct lack of pace matters less in a division where the attribute is a rarity rather than commonplace.
It seems that writing off Lee Cattermole comes at the author’s peril. This summer and last Christmas are not the only times that his Sunderland career has appeared to be nearing its end; back in 2013, when Paolo Di Canio rocked up spouting his inanities (in the third-person, no less), he identified Cattermole as one of the chief culprits in generating what is now famously referred to as the club’s ‘rotten core’. Stripped of the captaincy and ostracised by Di Canio, Cattermole bounced back, forming a vital part of the Gus Poyet side that made it to Wembley and completed one of the Premier League’s greatest escapes.
That level looks beyond him now. So, too, does the Championship. As clubs depart with ever-increasing sums of cash in order to reach the promised land, the quality and speed of the players on show has left the likes of Cattermole behind. Sitting at the base of midfield allows him to do a job, of sorts, but the days of him marauding around the pitch, pressuring the opposition and enforcing turnovers looks like a fool’s dream for him in the top two divisions.
At face value, to conclude that Cattermole has been reduced to a League One player should be saddening. He is just 30 years old and, not so long ago, plenty were suggesting an England call-up mightn’t be beyond him (and such suggestions weren’t solely heard within the city limits). With almost 200 Premier League appearances to his name, his fall from grace appears stark.
Yet Cattermole’s fall mirrors that of his own club and, just as he proved the perfect foil for the relegation battles of recent years, so now does he look well-suited for the club’s current task. There is a reason Yaya Toure once described him as one of his toughest ever opponents. The tenacity that so unnerved the Ivorian might not be enough in the Premier League anymore but, down here, in a division like this, Cattermole will continue to offer his worth to a club that may well owe him a testimonial by the time this current season is up.
Moreover, set against the backdrop of the shocking attitudes shown by the likes of Papy Djilobodji and Didier Ndong, the former captain has again shown his worth. Stewart Donald’s letting slip that Cattermole’s agent had suggested he wouldn’t want to miss out on a penny of what he is owed under his current contract did the player himself no favours, but it is difficult to argue that he has been anything but professional since the season got underway. Ross himself has confirmed as much; the new manager was clearly delighted to have held onto Cattermole when the loan window shut on Friday evening. The ‘rotten core’ was always a fallacy, and the midfielder’s efforts so far this season bear that fact out.
Cattermole’s limits are apparent: against Oxford United it was clear that, when opposing sides press high and with energy, he will struggle to extricate himself from tricky positions. Never the fastest at recycling possession, he may find himself shunted aside for Dylan McGeouch on a more regular basis than he will have hoped.
But even now, despite the gloom that enveloped his summer, Lee Cattermole has a role to play for Sunderland AFC. This is a frenetic league, where the games come thick and fast and, as AFC Wimbledon showed, the football itself isn’t always the most pleasing on the eye. That is where Sunderland’s former captain can excel: those nitty-gritty games where technical talent alone won’t guide a team through, and where a young side like this will need an older head to guide the way. Cattermole’s time at the top seems likely to be up – but his story at Sunderland still has at least one chapter remaining.