In a recent episode of the Guardian’s Football Weekly, journalist and Massive Lads Fan Jonathan Wilson told a story of being in the company of two former Cameroon international footballers at the African Cup of Nations.
During a moment of downtime following the conclusion of the tournament, the trio met to have dinner and watch Wilson’s Sunderland take on Arsenal in a fifth round FA Cup tie.
The players, legends of the Cameroonian game, kept leaning over to question Wilson as to who the red and white number six was. The player in question glided across the field, linking the play like a peak year Patrick Vieira while hassling and harrying his Arsenal adversaries with the terrier-like tenacity of Didier Deschamps. Then, every so often, he would spray a crossfield pass with the aplomb of a late-1990s Robert Pires.
Who is this man of such elegance, composure and doggedness?
“It’s Lee Cattermole,” Wilson proudly responded.
Wilson often describes Cattermole as the “most misunderstood player in world football” and as the Stockton-born stalwart quietly departs the Stadium of Light, it makes the sun over Wearside shine that little bit less.
In his decade on these fair shores, Cattermole has become the player that embodies Sunderland. Like his own misunderstood nature, we too, are a club that no-one can really put their finger on what makes it tick and what makes it so special to so many. Sunderland and Cattermole are two things that were simply made for each other.
He was our midfield destroyer, laying waste to every goddamn jobber that dared to cross his path. From wiping out Daryl Janmaat moments into a Tyne-Wear derby, leaving Jack Colback hobbling past a baying South Stand and hurling his body in the way of a goalbound shot at Norwich to effortlessly sweeping home a winner at AFC Wimbledon, Cattermole has been the face that has defined Sunderland’s most recent era.
It is that misunderstood nature that has made him even more endearing to certain sections of the fanbase. Upon first signing for Steve Bruce back in 2009, himself and Lorik Cana provided an intimidating force within the middle of the park but his game has had to evolve and in the years since it has been hard to find a player in red and white that had such a consistent and varied passing range.
Managers would come and go, hearing tales of a “rotten core”, that “his legs had gone”, that he was a “symbol of everything wrong at Sunderland”, and tried to dispose of our beloved Catts. Paolo Di Canio chose exile, Gus Poyet tried to edge him out by signing Liam Bridcutt and even current incumbent Jack Ross toyed with the idea at the beginning of last season to phase him out.
However, each time Cattermole has won his place back and demonstrated what a vital cog he is both on and off the pitch.
Despite adulation from some supporters, there has always been others that simply didn’t warm to him and regularly put Sunderland’s demise at Cattermole’s door. He seemed to be the go-to figure of hate whenever things turned sour but no-one could ever question his commitment to Sunderland’s cause.
When so many others gave up the ghost, ran for the exit or simply refused to play, Cattermole puffed out his chest, hitched up his shorts and did the job.
For every time he proved the naysayers wrong, his star shone a little brighter for this adoring fan. His departure closes a chapter on the past ten years and it is going to be a little different not seeing that beautiful face striding out onto the pitch.
Whether you loved or loathed him, Lee Cattermole is Sunderland and we are all Lee Barry Cattermole. We are the vitriol in those crunching challenges, we are the guttural roars in victory and we are the gleeful grin after smashing in a 30-yard screamer.
Deep down, he is exactly what we want every Sunderland player to be.
He got sent off, he smashed up cars with Nicklas Bendtner, he hospitalised Jack Colback, he shouted at us to get behind Ashley Fletcher but, goddamnit, there goes the greatest midfielder Sunderland has ever had.
Farewell, sweet prince.