Lee Cattermole leaving Sunderland after ten years perhaps wasn’t a surprise, but seeing him unveiled by Dutch Eredivisie club VVV Venlo certainly was. Most of us probably expected to see him wearing the colours of a Championship team rather than the yellow and black of VVV, so we headed over to Holland to watch his first 90 minutes of the season against mid-table rivals Groningen before asking how the move abroad came about.
The game itself was a hard-fought 2-1 home win, VVV riding their luck at times but grasping their opportunities in a pretty end-to-end tussle almost completely free of the play-acting and whinging the Premier League is such a hotbed for. Catts looked in his comfort zone, too, freely making tackles without his reputation putting him straight in the referee’s notebook, while displaying his familiar rallying cries and clap of his hands for his fellow players as he led like a captain despite not wearing the armband. It looks like he’s made a pretty smart move, so time to see how on earth it actually happened. We caught up with Catts afterwards…
ALS: How have you ended up here?
LC: Sunderland contacted me in the summer to talk about my contract. I was very happy with the way they club conducted themselves and the way I approached it. It was all very mutual. When I was free it was like ‘what’s out there?’ I would have gone to the Championship, and I probably would have gone to three or four clubs there, but they weren’t on offer. So, after that I thought ‘I want to go abroad’, ‘I want to do my coaching badges’, ‘I want to do a bit of media work’. I wanted to explore a bit.
ALS: So why Venlo?
LC: They’re an amazing club and great people. The German national team come and train here in the summer, and it feels like a Fulham or a Bournemouth; a small ground but it’s improving. They’ve just redone the front of the stadium, they’re redoing the pitch… it’s only their third consecutive season in the top league but they’re recycling the money back in. It’s really well run. That’s what I was so impressed with when I first turned up. They sat me in the board room and told me what they wanted from me: to help improve the standards around the place, to help the younger players, to demand more from them.
Coming here is going to broaden my knowledge of football. I played a lot of international football when I was younger, and it’s something I’ve always been interested in. This is a great league. You look at some of the games I’m going to play this year and for me, at my age, this is exciting. No disrespect to League One, but this really excites me compared to that. It’s a cracking little stadium and you’ve got great games coming up. Den Haag, PSV, Amsterdam, Alkmaar, they’re massive.
On the back of my hip operation I’ve hardly missed training and I’ve enjoyed playing football. You see the people who’ve gone across from Holland to England who bring loads of knowledge to the game and everyone learns from them; if I can come here for a year and really improve, then great. I’ve got a 12-month contract here and while I don’t exactly want to move club every season for the next three or four years, I want to see as much as I can.
ALS: Was it hard leaving Sunderland?
LC: I really enjoyed last year, playing under Jack and his staff, and the lads were great. I really liked where the club was going and the atmospheres at the Stadium of Light. I felt it was getting back to what we wanted. Everyone was pulling in the right direction. I still think we’ll go up this year, and that’s something I would have been involved with, happily, but this opportunity suited me given my age. I didn’t want to finish my career not knowing what else was around. I’ve come here and it’s no different to England: good standards, good attitudes in training. I couldn’t go to a relaxed place. I didn’t want a holiday; I want to improve.
ALS: How do you reflect on your time at Sunderland?
LC: I’ve actually had the chance to look back. It’s been nice to have a bit of closure. How can I talk about ten years there? It’s a monster of a football club. There’s so much passion it’s always going to be a little bit volatile there at times. We fought hard to stay in the Premier League for the last two or three years. We shouldn’t have needed to fight so hard, but there were obviously problems starting to open up. But I’ve got great memories of some huge games. You can go on forever listing them. the Liverpool game with the beach ball under Brucey, winning away at Old Trafford, all those wins against Man City. The Newcastle games were massive, of course, even getting beat 5-1, to come back from that and to go on a big run was great.
We came close a couple of times to really cracking it. Under Steve Bruce we had a really good spell, and with Gus Poyet I felt like we were moving in the right direction. When we lost Big Sam, that was huge blow for us. But I always found a way to enjoy it and I always believed in the manager we brought in, I always believed in our signings. One thing I’m proud of is I always found a way to get into the team. I never binned it, I kept going, and that’s when you get good characters.
Everyone’s a good character when you sign them, but are they a good character a year down the line, are they a good character when they’re injured, are they a good character when they’ve lost form? That’s when some players start ringing their agent asking to leave. I can honestly say I never did that. I was disappointed with our year in the Championship, but I never stopped believing in the club. The fans are the same. I believe in everyone who’s there at the minute and I’ll hopefully get back over Christmas because we’ve got a winter break. Which’ll be very, very nice!
ALS: Would you return to Sunderland to coach?
LC: I’m going to coach, but I don’t know what level yet. Whether it’s kids’ teams or… well it’ll probably have to be adults, because of my language! But I’m interested in the game and if I can give something back to Sunderland at some stage, that’ll be great, if they’ll welcome me, they’ve got loads of good coaches already. But I’d like to think I could improve whichever club I go to because of how much I’d give it.
ALS: How are you settling in Venlo?
LC: This club were unbelievable with me, as soon as I arrived. But not only the club, the surrounding area, too. Everywhere I go people couldn’t be more helpful. My dad’s been here the last couple of days and I took him to the local pub, I had half a Coke and he had a couple of beers and there must have been 30 people who walked past and said hello. Not because they knew me, but because that’s how people here are with each other, it’s a very friendly place. That’s been the nicest thing for me. I hope players felt that way when they came to Sunderland.
ALS: Is there any temptation to speak like Schteve McLaren?
LC: It’s very difficult, isn’t it? Because all they’re doing there is keeping in the important words and missing out the ones that mean nowt, so that people understand what they’re saying. So, I get why they’ve done it, but I’ve put in a conscious effort to make sure I don’t talk like that. They speak great English here so the language is never a problem but it’s still something I’m going to try and learn. I’m going to get Dutch lessons.
ALS: Are you living in Venlo?
LC: I’ve just moved into my flat here after three weeks in a hotel. My missus will move across soon, which’ll be nice, and my mates are buzzing to come across and watch all the games. I think the contact from the Sunderland fans to VVV has been amazing and the club are buzzing about it. It’s nice the way the two clubs have connected, it’s great. These lot will welcome Sunderland fans with open arms.
He’s not wrong. VVV couldn’t have been happier to host ALS, and they’re excited to see our fans travel over for a weekend of Eredivisie football. They’ll be greeted by something a little different to British football; while the 8000-capacity De Koel stadium might seem akin to some of the grounds we’ll visit in League One this season, the pumping atmosphere in the fan zone, both before and after the game, is a million miles away, as fans drink local Lindeboom beer while partying to Schlager music imported from just over the border in Germany. Songs like ‘Dicke Titten Kartoffelsalat,’ look up the translation online, really have to be heard to be believed. “It’s different, isn’t it?” Catts observes.
What’s also different is the pantomime that follows the final whistle against Groningen, as VVV’s team celebrate their tight victory in front of their singing section as if it’s a trophy win, dancing around to club anthem ‘Alles Heej is VVV’ while the captain wields a microphone to get the crowd changing back to him. “I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with that,” says Catts. “I didn’t know what to do. But it’s good. I’ll get used to it!”
The players are helping him feel right at home otherwise, even tucking their tops into their shorts during official team photo day, though the man himself has apparently had a polite word in his ear from the board as one of VVV’s sponsors is printed right at the bottom of the shirt’s back. Oops. There’s a minor Sunderland contingent present at our game, too, with Jerome Sinclair coming off the Venlo bench in the second half and Joel Asoro in the Groningen squad. Catts interrupts our chat as Asoro passes by to board the team bus, giving him a big hug and asking how he’s finding Eredivisie football since his loan move from Swansea.
We couldn’t recommend a trip across enough, the crowd are even familiar with the ‘Lee Lee Lee’ chant, singing it with remarkable volume when he makes one of his trademark tackles. Venlo itself is a fairly small town, but it’s well connected by train and so close to the likes of Eindhoven and Düsseldorf that a weekend away following our club’s most recent cult hero shouldn’t be too hard to make happen. It’s just two hours from Amsterdam, too. Catts’ move abroad might have taken us by surprise, but now it’s time to take advantage.
Photos: Daniel van den Berg