On the day in which fixtures are released I find myself re-visiting the same emotions I felt near the end of last season; ones of a newly-found gratitude, pride and optimism. Our late surge for survival was correctly billed as nothing short of miraculous, and I would be lying if I said that myself and the rest of the ALS lads hadn't started making provisions for next season's Championship campaign, be it the early start, the additional fixtures or the visiting of grounds which resemble the cliched garden shed in comparison to places like The Emirates or The Etihad.
For all Wickham grabbed the headlines, and his seemingly instinctive goalscoring should not be overlooked, there was no individual more key to our survival than Lee Cattermole. His performances displayed discipline, technical ability and leadership far surpassing anything we've seen from Cattermole on a consistent basis before this season. It's no secret, he has played his best football under Gus Poyet, and the manager's insistence that the player should not be sold in January, even after a 'lucrative' offer from Stoke, turned out to be one of the wisest decisions of his tenure at the club.
Despite Poyet bringing in Liam Bridcutt, a player many of us may have assumed was a replacement for Cattermole, the Stockton-born midfielder seems to have thrived under the competition and formed an integral part of a very effective midfield three also involving Seb Larsson and Jack Stab-back.
A player with limitations to his game, one thing which has remained high throughout his 5 years on Wearside (despite his waistband) is his work rate. Perhaps our new sporting director Lee Congerton said it best at the annual fixtures release breakfast; "Lee Cattermole epitomises everything positive about Sunderland as a club and an area". I'd be inclined to agree, we may not always have the quality or the luck, but we'll graft our arses off and we're not afraid to show our teeth when we need to.
I don't think Cattermole will be sold this summer, especially with the midfielders we have already lost on free transfers, and I think there's every possibility he could be offered a new contract, personally I would welcome that. With him finishing last season so strongly, this season will be his opportunity to shake off that awful dark cloud which has burdened his career, that he is some sort of thug or bruiser and that he can't play football.
I agree that Lee has let us down in the past with poor decision making, both in his sendings off and his stray passes, but that is an element of his game which has came on in leaps and bounds under Poyet, and with a full pre-season behind him armed with the guidance of the Uruguayan coach, I think he could start the season just as well as he left off, setting up the campaign which will determine whether the rest of his career will be spent harbouring the same reputation he has fought so hard to part with, or whether he can truly evolve into that cultured, game controlling anchor-man which we have seen frustratingly infrequent glimpses of.
At 26 years old, Lee is at the point in his career where he can no longer rely on the defence of being young and inexperienced, he is entering the years where he can be expected to lead not only by utilising his lauded leadership qualities and by barking orders at those around him, but also by putting in technically sound, productive and even creative performances, something which have not, as of yet, been associated with him. In addition to this, with the depreciation of influential midfielders such as Gerrard and Lampard, and no player nationally recognised as an expert in his role, Lee faces an opportunity where he may, with a bit of work, legitimately justify an England call up.
This is the proverbial fork in the road really, but the 2014/15 season will cement Cattermole's status not as a fork, but as either a spoon or a knife. It could be the season which compounds Lee's weaknesses as a player, banishing him to flitting between relegation battling sides when we do let him go, or it could turn him into the British Mark van Bommel, making him a club legend in the process. By my calculations he is our longest serving senior player now, and it's time he starts acting like it on a permanent basis.