Since the beginning of the 2010/11 Premier League season, Sunderland’s ‘official’ first-team captain has either been Lee Cattermole or John O’Shea, two men who have been employees of this football club through the entirety of our recent struggles.
Combined, Cattermole and O’Shea have turned out in Sunderland colours on over 400 occasions, and throughout the majority of their time at the club the pair have been seen as the ‘leaders’ in the dressing room.
There’s plenty of blame to go around at Sunderland for the reasons why we are where we are, and whilst attempting to put my finger on just what is going wrong I couldn’t help but wonder whether the constant influence of the experienced pair in the dressing room is, in part, helping to cause the complete lack of organisation, inspiration and unity we’re seeing with increasing regularity on the pitch.
When talking about this subject it’s hard to ignore the infamous saga involving then-Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio in 2013, whereby the much-maligned Italian was intensely scrutinised by the media for his off-the-pitch political beliefs and his brash, inflammatory personality. During his ill-fated spell as boss, Di Canio pin-pointed Cattermole and his fellow teammate Phil Bardsley as the two biggest problems in his dressing room, and despite facing significant opposition he strived to rid Sunderland of the pair of them in his belief that a true cultural change at the club couldn’t occur unless their influence around the dressing room was gone.
Alas, Paolo lost the battle and the players won - several ‘senior’ members of the Sunderland squad approached then chief-executive Margaret Byrne in order to seek the removal of Di Canio as manager, citing that he was difficult to work with. The club gave in, the players won, and the former Swindon gaffer was relieved of his duties - and he’s barely been seen since.
Regardless of whether you believe that Di Canio’s dismissal was fair, it’s safe to say that the day that he was relieved of his position was a pivotal one in the history of this football club - the likes of O’Shea and Cattermole were proven to be more authoritative than even the Sunderland manager that was indeed supposed to hold power and command over them.
Fast forward four years, and plenty has changed on Wearside. Byrne eventually left, countless players - both good and bad - have come and gone, and an assortment of managers with varying backgrounds and experience have arrived, tried to implement their own ethos, yet failed.
Yet, Cattermole and O’Shea, Sunderland’s locker-room leaders, have remained.
You do have to wonder how much of the blame for our ingrained culture of losing can be appropriated to those two men. It would be unfair to judge the Sunderland manager, the chairman and the CEO without also looking towards the players that step out on to the pitch each and every week in order to take part in, ultimately, the most important aspect of this business - the games of football.
I can’t help but look towards Newcastle United and the process in which was implemented when they too were relegated just over a year ago. Long-time captain Fabricio Coloccini and life-long toon veteran Steven Taylor - men that lead Newcastle through two Premier League relegations - left the club that summer, thus forcing Rafael Benitez into select a new captain as he ushered in a new era on Tyneside.
For the first time in many years the Magpies were pushed in to making an uncertain decision regarding squad-authority. It was a bold choice handing 22-year old rookie Jamaal Lascelles the Newcastle captaincy, but it’s a decision that has since proven to be a wise one. The youngster has since shown himself to be an incredibly astute appointment, despite his young age and his inexperience within the professional game.
My point, I suppose, is that whilst Sunderland as an organisation has changed so much over recent years, our leadership in the area of the club that matters most (to fans at least), on the pitch, has remained the same. Though I concede that there are many factors that we can attribute to Sunderland’s ills, can we really signal a new start in a new league when those within the squad that are in positions of influence remain the same?
Cattermole and O’Shea, in my eyes, are failures. Though O’Shea came to Sunderland from a club that won countless trophies, that was a long time ago. All that I associate Cattermole with are injuries, ill-discipline and a losing mentality. You have to wonder whether such shoddy leadership would be tolerated in any other business than Football.
So ask yourself this - will Sunderland ever truly move forward when these two men are making up part of our squad? I have to concede that I severely doubt it.