"Gutless is a strong word … if Sunderland do go down it won’t be because of a lack of guts … while I’m here I’ll give everything [to] get us out of trouble … if we go down it will kill me."
Lee Barry Cattermole said that in October 2013; a time when his own career was up in the air, when ridiculing the player for his overstated ill-discipline was a conventional trend. But that was a long time ago. Now, in 2015, Sunderland fans are chanting a lot louder for a midfielder who – after nearly 6 years on Wearside – is becoming untouchable at the club. Here’s why.
When Steve Bruce became Sunderland manager in June 2009, he swiftly threw £7m at Wigan Athletic for his old captain. Bruce, who had already spent £4.4m on Cattermole the season prior, dubbed the Stockton-on-Tees native a "… courageous [and] a tireless worker …" who would give steel to a weak midfield spine alongside Albanian thrash-tackler, Lorik Cana.
And he did. Cattermole was an immediately vigorous and industrial player, and his absences were a drawback for his team. Without his on-field influence, Sunderland succumbed to 1 win from the 8 matches Cattermole missed through a ligament tear in November 2009. The midfielder was praised by supporters and team-mates alike for his appetite and blatant desire.
However that all changed within 45 minutes of the 10/11 season, when Cattermole buzz-killed the roar of the SOL against Birmingham City with a dense first-half double-booking. Support turned sourer three matches later when, within 22 minutes against Wigan Athletic, he did it again. Fans were mad. Bruce was deflated; and, in September 2010, he warned "… half of [Cattermole’s] career will disappear with suspensions … at the moment he isn’t [learning] …"
That Cattermole was a regular starter during Sunderland’s 18-match run of 3 losses; but was injured during the club’s disastrous streak of 8 losses from 9 matches, was irrelevant. That poor disciplinary record eclipsed any credit that he deserved for the season’s more flourishing results.
To pundits, Cattermole became a counter-culture of the modern game. He was English footballs past – a reckless liability, even a genuine danger to opposition players. His was a stained (if not exaggerated) reputation. To supporters, he was divisive; appreciated for his enthusiasm, but talked about as Steve Bruce’s injury-prone ‘pet project’, immune from being dropped.
By December of the 11/12 season however, another dimension to Lee Cattermole’s game came into focus, and his strengths were finally being recognised. With Martin O’Neill’s savvy methods and some injury-free momentum, the midfielder put in warrior-like performances – most notably in the New Year’s Day-dream over Manchester City. By playing smart and tackling smarter, Cattermole was seen no longer as an aggressive player – but an assertive one. And despite picking up 13 yellow cards, his only red card came from a lame post-match referee row.
But! All that good work was undone in Sunderland’s dud-shambles 12/13 season. After being dismissed again during the Carling Cup 3rd Round against MK Dons in September 2012, Cattermole was again injured three months later. His season was cancelled on 14 appearances.
It is this point in the midfielder’s career that many of his current critics refer to. Cattermole was 25 years old; he had the 2nd highest red card tally in Premier League history, averaging a dismissal every 26 games. His record was a dirt-sheet’s dream for ridicule, and some media reports were damning to a point of propaganda against this ‘merciless’, ‘uncontrollable’ player.
Fan support was, admittedly, uncertain and not wholly changed, but the management’s was. Prior to the 13/14 season, new head honcho Paolo Di Canio stock-piled a midfield group to exclude Cattermole from his plans. It was a time when Cattermole himself later admitted he would have accepted a transfer away from the club. Fortunately that never materialised.
Instead the midfielder was given another chance by Gustavo Poyet in October 2013. And by May, Cattermole had made his most seasonal appearances for the club to date; receiving just 6 yellow cards, 1 contentious red card; and was otherwise a driving force in Sunderland’s extraordinary season. He had become so indispensable that his mid-season transfer to Stoke City was stopped despite Liam Bridcutt being recruited to fill the defensive midfield role.
And that brings us to now. In this 14/15 season, Cattermole is on 26 appearances; 13 yellow cards and 0 red cards. That’s a lot of cards – the most in the league, but this is not the defining detail of his season; not when similar players, Moussa Sissoko and Tom Huddlestone, each have 2 red cards this year. This is also a record coming off Cattermole’s 13/14 season, when forty-one players received more cards than Sunderland’s ex-captain.
What really matters is that Lee Cattermole is having a hell of a season. His 139 defensive actions are the 11th most of league midfielders, with his 5.75 per game also being the 4th best of midfielders who have played as many minutes or more. He’s also on 6th most for blocked shots and 9th for clearances. And though he has the 13th most interceptions for midfielders, Cattermole’s 2.52 per game actually puts him 2nd, after Morgan Schneiderlin.
Cattermole’s tackling stats are more deceptive. This season, he’s made 2.15 tackles per game on average, putting him 20th against midfielders with as many minutes. Sebastian Larsson has a higher rate. Also, Cattermole’s low tackling success rate (34%) is way out from leading tackler Victor Wanyama (48%). However the wider scope of these numbers is that Cattermole – who has never had a ‘great’ tackle success rate – is making fewer tackles than he was in the 10/11 season (3.7 per game) and because of this, is committing approximately 1.5 fewer fouls per game than he was 3-4 seasons ago.
With some added caution and having the know-how to realise when not to make a challenge, Cattermole’s presence in the team is thriving; making more clearances, shot-blocks and even aerial battles than in any season at the club. He’s becoming a colossal omnipresence both in his defensive actions and in his flourishing influence on team-mates.
The ‘Clattermole’ tag is dead. For two seasons now, the endeavour and sheer passion, that Cattermole has always had, are finally starting to define his career. At 27 years old, the midfielder is now at the age many players come into their prime and find that balance of good form and professional maturity – and Cattermole is doing this now. For every spilled pass he makes, he’ll hit that missile-like long ball up-field with pin-point precision. And when he does misplace those short passes, you know he won’t wait for someone else to sort out his mistake. Few players in the Premier League try so vehemently to rectify their own errors like he does.
It all adds to this short legacy Cattermole has built at Sunderland. Strip away the old-talk disciplinary record and you have the longest-serving player in the club’s current roster; who embodies the passion of the supporters better than any, who has the guts to take the fight to a team, throttle a game by the neck, and refuse to quit. Though Costel Pantilimon and Seb Larsson deserve their plaudits for the season; it is Lee Cattermole who is the beating heart of this team; he has been since the day he joined, and we have watched his development from reckless youth to mature leader over six seasons.
Maybe Steve Bruce said it best in 2009: "… as a north east lad, he understands what it means to represent a club in this region …"
Hopefully, he’ll be representing this club for years to come.