Lee Cattermole divided opinion until the very end. When he arrived at Sunderland, back in 2009, he presented to some an exciting prospect, perhaps a future England international; to others, he was a tempestuous, even nasty individual, one who would prove too hot-headed to ever succeed on Wearside. Upon his departure, unexpectedly announced on Monday evening, the older splits remained: asset vs liability; club legend vs rotten core; one enduring glimmer of hope vs an emblem of Sunderland’s downfall.
Monday’s news surprised but should not shock. As is common knowledge, Cattermole was handsomely paid by the club at Premier League level, to the extent that even a subsequent 40% wage cut left him with a pay packet that was positively gargantuan for a League One side.
In an interview in December, Charlie Methven was clear in his view that Cattermole, for all he was contributing to the cause, would never be able to justify his outsized salary at this level. “If you take the view that Lee is a top, top League One midfielder,” Methven said, “his appropriate wage would be £350k a year. In a couple of games, he’s been dominated by players on £150k a year. £350-400k a year for a midfielder in this division is a player that should be scoring 10 goals a season and pretty much motoring you to promotion. I think he’s doing fine, but I wouldn’t say he’s quite doing that.“
The costs to the club were simply too much to bear. Paid around £2m a year, Cattermole’s wage would have been owed by a club that, should it not be promoted this coming season, could feasibly be reduced to income of just £15m in 2020/21. When we consider the limits that FFP imposes on League One wage bills – at that level of revenue, the club would be allowed to pay just £9m in total wages across the year – it becomes clear that now is the right time to cut him loose.
The tale goes that Cattermole has been paid a year’s salary upfront to leave immediately. That might seem galling, but it is sensible in the long run. It does not mean that £2m has been freed up to spend on replacements, but it does bring the club one step closer to sustainability and, as mentioned, removes what could have been quite a tricky problem next year. Moreover, dependent on how the pay-off has been funded, it likely makes the club a more attractive proposition to would-be investors or buyers. Cattermole’s departure rids Sunderland of a significant financial liability (and, some may harshly argue, a physical one too).
Rumours abound that he has Championship suitors ready to take a chance on him – Steve Bruce’s Sheffield Wednesday unsurprisingly top the list – and if that is the case then the move makes sense on all sides. Cattermole will not command the wage he is leaving behind, but a full year’s pay-off accompanying the lower new salary is likely better for him than staying on Wearside until 2021, by which time his chances of obtaining a spot at a decent level, and a corresponding wage, may have slimmed dramatically.
If the departure itself is easy to dissect then an all-encompassing review of his Sunderland career is rather tougher to provide. Cattermole’s spell on Wearside has presented more ups and downs than a recently retired pilot.
There were times when the promise of his early years looked set to be fulfilled. His initial partnership with Lorik Cana bore much fruit and, throughout his decade at the club, his combative style has served as a much-needed antidote to the passive approach of too many teammates. There has been plenty to enjoy about his time at the club, be it Yaya Toure namechecking him when asked about the toughest players he’s ever faced, a screamer on opening day at The Hawthorns that just about killed most in the away end or, and this is a personal favourite of mine, the sight of him careering into Daryl Janmaat 10 seconds into a Tyne-Wear derby that had been preceded by our friends from up the road continually telling us how ‘tough’ their Dutch full-back was. Few have done more for the longevity of ‘the reducer’ than our Lee.
In the relegation escapes engineered by Gus Poyet and Sam Allardyce, he was a force of nature, rallying the troops and letting nothing past. One prominent fan was mocked on Monday for suggesting Cattermole should have gone to the 2014 World Cup but the truth isn’t too far away from that; England needed holding midfielders and, under Poyet that season, he was arguably the best one on offer.
If he has been underappreciated at times then there have been others where he has done much to damage his own cause. The red cards were not as frequent as many like to portray, with seven arriving in 262 games, but when they did occur they were often mindless and at inopportune moments. The yellows were more frequent (87 of them, a ratio of one in three) and again they were a source of infuriation, often coming by way of a daft trip when the ball had long since passed him by. There was the idiotic vandalising of cars in Newcastle city centre that resulted in a police caution, not to mention the occasional on-field horror shows, never more evident than in the infamous 0-3 FA Cup loss at Hull City, where two mind-boggling errors in the space of five minutes ensured another trip to Wembley was firmly off the cards.
The variety of injuries he has endured would make a good doctor double-check his notes. Ruptured cruciate ligaments, knee problems, back problems, an abdominal hernia, concussion and hip troubles have all plagued him over the past decade, the latter persisting without proper diagnosis for four years and requiring obscene amounts of painkillers to try and combat. It would not have been too much of a surprise if Cattermole had turned up to training one day wearing callipers.
But turn up he would have and turn up he did and, for all the criticism levelled at him over the years – some fairly, some not – few could argue he has ever given anything less than his all. Numerous journalists have mentioned the passion for the club that shone through in their interviews with him, and only the most blinkered naysayers could say he has been an overpaid mercenary.
Overpaid he came to be but even that was indicative of the vast impact he has had on this football club. Cattermole and the club arrived at their departure point by virtue of him signing a contract in 2015 that would keep him here until 2021. That move was one made by the club, at least partially, to placate fans fearful of another wasted summer transfer window; tying Cattermole down for so long was widely seen as a big positive.
Though there was no real happy ending, it is nice in a way that Cattermole departs with his stock at a relative high. During the annus terriblis of 2017/18 the sight of him being casually sauntered past by distinctly average Championship midfielders was enough to turn even the Vatican air blue, but a drop into League One has allowed him to at least showcase his leadership talents and a hitherto unknown eye for goal. Seven goals were plundered last year and his willingness to accept any challenge that comes his way has never been clearer, even if it does mean being the fall guy in a penalty shoot-out.
While his leaving provides much needed financial benefits and, perhaps, shouldn’t be too big a hole to plug if the club gets its recruitment right, it is undeniable that the Academy of Light and the dressing room will be a poorer place without him. It is a sad fact of life that Lee Cattermole became too much for Sunderland AFC to keep hold of, no matter how much both parties might wish the opposite was true. He will move on and so will we. For now, we can say but one thing: thanks, Lee.