If there is anyone who typifies Sunderland’s monumental fall from grace over the last two seasons then it is Lee Cattermole. A mainstay and a cornerstone for a number of the perpetual Premier League survival campaigns, converted into a passenger, a liability and seemingly a part of the deep-rooted problems at the club in recent years.
Plagued by injuries, suspensions and erratic form, the combative midfielder splits opinions on a good day and is the first name on the lips of those bearing pitch forks and a flame on a bad one. And yet as he left the field at Valley Parade on Saturday, another sold out away end once again lauded his name in unison as he continues to battle his way through adversity.
That adversity for Cattermole was never more evident than during the summer after the reprehensible comments made during a pre-season friendly match at Hartlepool United revealing his desires to “hopefully” leave the club – or words to that effect. Fast forward three months and a string of positive performances later, the 30-year-old now cannot understand why anybody would not want to be a part of the club – pinch of salt anyone?
Of course, those comments could be deemed artificial and simply put down to PR obligations and nonsense but, watching Cattermole so far this season, it would be hard to disagree that he is displaying all the characteristics of a player reborn under new manager Jack Ross.
There is an intensity back to his game, a tenacious grit and determination to re-establish himself as an imposing name on both the team sheet and in games - conceivably afforded to him by being one of, if not, the most renowned names in the division – and there has even been the added bonus of a smattering of goals. Are these characteristics merely down to the level at which Cattermole now finds himself plying his trade? Perhaps, but with Max Power struggling to remain on the field whenever he is selected, and Dylan McGeouch’s indifferent performances to date, Cattermole has become Ross’ number one pick in central midfield – and rightfully so.
The enigma of Cattermole however is still one that continues to cause much deliberation among supporters. A high earner and one of the constants throughout Sunderland’s recent downfall, he justifiably earned the public enemy number one bullseye placed upon him. Similarly, controversy has never been too far away from Cattermole’s door with disapproving connotations of overindulgence away from the field – whether that be a nightclub door on Yarm High Street he has been thrown out of or a car door in Newcastle city centre he has defaced - not to mention the irrefutable disciplinary record on the pitch.
But there is something about Cattermole and his obstinate approach that continues to endear him to Sunderland fans – even more so at a time where many players have contrived to flee from the sinking ship or in some cases refrain from turning up at all – parallel to a Kevin Ball or an Alex Rae of years gone by. Admittedly, upholding Cattermole on a similar pedestal to Ball or Rae in terms of ability would be irrational, but there are undoubtedly some resemblances between the trio’s high-waisted shorts and personalities on a football field that remains likeable.
And that is just what Sunderland have in a rejuvenated Cattermole this season; a player who has rekindled his passion for the shirt again, a player desperate to right some of those elusive wrongs, a player willing to roll his sleeves up in the face of adversity, a player intent on simply enjoying his profession again – something often disregarded when criticising players.
What Cattermole also provides this season is an experienced head amongst a very inexperienced Sunderland squad without the added pressure of having the captain’s armband. Instead, Cattermole has almost been allowed to take on a role of the unofficial club captain, the practiced head, the ‘been-there-done-that-got-the-t-shirt’ figure – a t-shirt no less this squad of players will be keen to avoid wearing themselves during their time on Wearside.
There is a long way to go before Cattermole repairs all of the bridges he may have burned down during his nine year stay at Sunderland – some maybe beyond repair – and there remains undeniable flaws to his game such as a distinct lack of pace and the misguided petulance and verbal retaliation that continues to allow referees to scribe his name onto their yellow cards. But right now, Cattermole is offering more in a Sunderland shirt than he has done in some time. He is rediscovering the ability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck like he did in the win at AFC Wimbledon, like he did at Coventry City and like he did again at Bradford on Saturday.
Cattermole may not be the answer to Sunderland’s long-term plan, but Sunderland’s plan should not be very long-term at this moment in time. For now, Sunderland’s only objective is to escape League One, in the right direction, as quickly as they possibly can and Cattermole’s recent form has already demonstrated why he is a key part of that process. The relationship between Cattermole and manager, Ross, is arguably as good a relationship he has had with a manager. There has been an element of trust instilled upon him to simply do the basics of being a professional footballer again; remain professional throughout such troublesome times and give his best when performing and they are instructions he appears to be thriving under.
The easy solution in the summer would have been for Cattermole and his inflated salary to leave the club. Perhaps there were no takers, or perhaps there was a genuine grain of resolve in Cattermole to stay and help the club? Slowly but surely however, with each positive performance, the midfielder is garnering the trust of the supporters once more, rebuilding a rapport that once made him a fan favourite.
There may never be another player quite as ‘marmite’ in a Sunderland shirt and the debate will most likely carry on during his remaining years at the club. But maybe it is time to alleviate the conflicting opinions towards Cattermole. He has served his time in the stocks of ridicule more than most Sunderland players. He has righteously been vilified for his behaviour and application during one of the club’s darkest periods in history, but right now he is justifying his position and earning his applause.