Another week, another Sunderland player being linked away. The press must have even bored themselves with the silly Asamoah Gyan speculation so this time it was Lee Cattermole's turn to be tenuously linked with a move away with Liverpool the club reported to be interested. Before we get ahead of ourselves and before Roker Report's Man On The Street gives himself another hernia through vehement protestations about the things the voices in his head are telling him, we should point out that this nugget of journalistic gold was from Alan Oliver. That means that whilst it isn't quite 'a load of Nixon', it isn't far off. Mind, if Alan Oliver hadn't amused us for years by coining the phrase "stepped aside" and using it in most of his Chronicle articles (and we use the term in its loosest possible sense, you understand) to try and spin Newcastle United as the most generous football club known to man and explain their curious habit of failing to land the big-name targets they are almost ritualistically linked with at season ticket renewal time, then we may not be so forgiving towards him and his unique comedy stylings.
So, anyway, Cattermole... surely we don't actually want to see him sold, do we?
For me, Lee Cattermole is a quite scandalously under-rated footballer by what seems to be a large section of the Sunderland support. I'll grant you that he is not a flash player, or an especially disciplined player yet, and there is probably more chance of Iain Dowie scoring at a Craggy Island 'Lovely Girls' competition than there is of Lee Cattermole scoring on a football pitch, but it's no good throwing together attacking talent and then not providing them with a platform from which to play. Cattermole is a player who can provide such a platform. If we put his perceived limitations aside for one moment (don't worry detractors – we'll come to those soon enough), Cattermole was without question the most prolific ball-winner available to our midfield last season and, despite the arrivals of Gardner and Vaughan, you'd expect him to be up there again next season too. And for all the talk of him being a liability in the tackle, it is also noteworthy that he wins more tackles than he gives away free kicks. When you also factor in the amount of times he gets the opposition turned away from our goal, one of the subtler arts of the defensive midfielder's role, it becomes apparent that there IS some value to his presence in the team.
Obviously there is a flip side of the coin, and questions are regularly asked of Cattermole's decision making and his passing. Now I don't think that Cattermole is a poor passer of the ball at all. His passing game is unspectacular yet solid. He supports the man in possession well and, at 79%, his pass completion success rate is comparable with just about anyone in the squad and better than most. He perhaps isn't as penetrative in possession as we'd like, but he keeps the ball well enough, so I dismiss the assertion that he is a poor passer of a football.
The lacking quality in his decision-making, especially when hunting the ball, is undeniable however. Who could forget his desperate lunge at Hugo Rodallega on the DW touchline mere minutes after being cautioned last September, for example? It has even been suggested that a single caution is enough to totally take Cattermole's influence out of a game one way or another given his inability to trust himself to make sensible decisions. It is definitely THE big flaw in his game, but it isn't terminal. People mature and people learn, and we are perhaps too quick to forget that, at the age of just 23, Cattermole is still very much a young man. In fact, he was even eligible to be representing England at under-21 level in the European Championships last month. Staying injury-free for a year or two would be a huge help too, of course, and allow him to get some kind of rhythm into his game, but his performances for Wigan suggest that it is merely a case of rediscovering what we already know is there.
But to judge Cattermole in isolation would perhaps be unfair. When magnificent steam engines were rolling proudly up and down Britain's railways romancing the world, it was easy to forget that there was a grubby, yet essential, little man inside shovelling coal and bringing the machine to life. Players like Lee Cattermole are football's equivalent. Without them it doesn't matter how impressive they look because they aren't going anywhere. Sir Alex Ferguson has Darren Fletcher, for example. Chelsea have John-Obi Mikel, Manchester City have Nigel De Jong. Arsenal have.... um... exactly. Arsenal are perhaps the best example of what style gets you without the steel. With the amount of style they have they should be dominant but there is no one willing to get their hands dirty.
Obviously Lee Cattermole has his detractors and he is the kind of player who always attracts them, and has always attracted them. Those old enough will remember Kevin Ball being consistently booed by Sunderland fans for a spell too, for example. So all in all I can't say I have been surprised to see so many advocating the club looks to cash-in on the player. What does surprise me a little is that so many seem unable to recognise his value to the team. Get Cattermole fit, keep him fit, and afford him the time to mature naturally and there is no doubt that there is so much more to come from him - and I hope he is still in a Sunderland shirt when it does.