Let me start this by stating I love Lee Barry Cattermole. Always have done & always will. The tough tackling Teessider who moved to Wearside almost a decade ago and two-footed himself into our hearts is truly like no other individual presently in the Sunderland squad.
I love Catts the same way I did Bally, Chris Makin, John Kay, Gary Bennett et al. Those names conjure up certain emotions amongst the Wearside faithful. Individuals who understood exactly what it meant to be a Sunderland player. Grit, determination and a whole load of bottle. They “got” whatever SAFC is; they understood what it took to wear that jersey. They were - and remain - the embodiment of what Wearside expects in any footballer.
However, like all who had come before them and all who came after, suddenly a moment is reached in any career when trademark attributes are no longer enough to keep a figure centre-stage. Faster, younger legs or changing manager systems will always eventually render former stalwarts as redundant.
As early in the season as it may be right now, I have begun to find myself questioning if Lee Cattermole has finally reached that moment in his Sunderland career when he can now longer be guaranteed a starting berth and requires replacing.
It’s a notion some of us will have considered recently. “Have the injuries caught up with him?” they whisper as if it’s a dirty secret and truth be told Catts has looked distinctly average since relegation, not that anyone really dare admit it yet publicly.
Since Cattermole’s £6m move to the club in 2009, he’s faced long periods on the treatment table; with last season’s spell sidelined one of his longest out of action. Catts featured in just eight games last term, with more than half of them coming after March, when all but the ultimate optimist or mathematician knew we were going down.
On reflection, the clamour as relegation loomed for Cattermole’s return was probably merely to offer supporters a modicum of reassurance that someone / anyone in the dressing room cared that Sunderland were drowning in their own apathy.
Fast forward to a fresh start in the Championship and Cattermole enjoyed an injury free pre-season, following which we all looked to the club vice captain to provide an injection of hope in trying times.
The assumption has been that Catts’ vastly underrated quality on the ball would surely be enough to dominate from midfield in most matches down here in the second-tier. Sunderland’s defensive and attacking options may be lacking but a midfield that included Lee Cattermole certainly seemed sound enough for a successful bash at the Championship. It hasn’t really turned out that way though has it?
Take aside the season opener against Derby, and I’ve barely noticed the normally game-influencing, aggressive midfielder we’ve grown to love. In fact, Cattermole has not really had an impact on any game since. He’s drifted through matches anonymously and whilst Didier Ndong may be the Duracell bunny, tackling and harrying to the best of his ability, Catts has been brushed aside by Championship midfielders who certainly don’t have any respect for reputation.
By other routinely robust measures used to consider the Catts influence, something is certainly lacking. Normally earmarked for a booking per game by referees, the 29-year-old has surprisingly only picked up one yellow in the opening weeks of the campaign and add to this a frighteningly low average of just 2.6 tackles per game, something suggests this is not the Lee Cattermole we know.
With Darron Gibson’s outburst and apparent lack of legs in pre-season ensuring he’s begun the campaign out of the starting eleven, only Jack Rodwell currently threatens Cattermole’s cemented spot in the centre of the park. Surely Catts hasn’t become complacent or does he just need a new challenge; or is it those pesky injuries finally catching up with him after all?
Whatever it is, and whether we like to admit it or not, Lee Cattermole is currently a shadow of the player we know he can be - and as usual, this is at a time we need him to be at his best.
When we’re looking for a talisman to match the rough and tumble Championship, Lee Cattermole has been found wanting. Seemingly unable to call on his experience to influence games; Sunderland have only picked up one win in eight with him as captain.
Whilst we all cling to the vision of a roaring, chest-punching victor at Norwich a year and a half ago, is that Lee Cattermole forever lost to us? It’s still early in the season and there’s plenty of games to come; but with each passing week I can’t help but think that maybe the fan favourite’s time as automatic choice is over. Trouble is, there’s still no one better to pick.