When Patrick Vieira smashed his elbow into Darren Williams in the opening game of the season in August 2000, it was an act of aggression we had come to expect from the fiery Frenchman. The subsequent red card that followed was to be his fifth in four seasons, yet amazingly, fast forward two days to a match at Anfield and Graham Poll ensured that statistic would rise to six in four seasons. There appeared to be nowhere to go for Vieira from there. Well there was, to pastures new and away from the Premier League. Two sendings off in three days takes some doing.
One person who didn’t want to see the tough tackling midfielder walk away from English football was his manager Arsene Wenger. Because, like his old nemesis Roy Keane, Veira’s importance to his side was probably deemed so necessary that it was worth enduring the ten to fifteen percent or so of the season that he would miss through suspension. Vieira’s team-mates were quick to rally around the talismanic midfielder also, Sports Illustrated reported that Dennis Bergkamp stated “he could be thinking ‘that’s it, it is all over’ and if that’s the case, we lose a big player”. Gilles Grimandi appeared to concede “we will try to encourage him to stay but it will be very difficult for him”. Sympathy certainly appeared prevail over condemnation.
Conspiracy theories flourished. We all know that Arsene Wenger perpetually sees his players as victims, but never sees the controversial incidents that benefit his own side. Looking back, most people view Vieira’s career in positive terms but at the time he was seen as a liability by a majority unconnected to Arsenal Football Club.
It’s all a little bit Lee Cattermole.
There’s a bit of a double edged sword to the Cattermole issue. As with Vieira and Keane, Lee Cattermole is an imperative cog in his side’s midfield machine. I’m sorry all you haters, but he just is. For all the understandable frustration and thinning of patience, a Sunderland side without their captain in it is one that is significantly weakened. Martin O’Neill has been quick to point out his importance, telling Sun FM “He’s a very decent leader. He can close players down as effectively as any player I’ve ever known”. A boring trait to possess in some people’s eyes, but a necessary one when you play in the way that we do. Before we can begin to counter attack as we do, keeping shape is vital. Put aside any negative feelings about our style of play for now, we are where we are in terms of that.
And conspiracy theories that Mr Wenger would be proud of are evident here also. O’Neill continued, “His reputation definitely precedes him. Referees are much less lenient with him than other players”. Speaking of David Luiz’s horror tackle on Jonathan Walters last weekend, he suggested “If that had been Lee’s challenge he’d have been sent from the park”. On the surface of it all is the typical ‘us v them’ mentality. An imbalanced and unmeasured defence of the indefensible. I gather that people outside of Wearside find that a little paranoid. It isn’t. It goes without saying that the Sunderland captain is marked man, it frustrates me no end when he is cautioned for his first offence whilst his opponents are presented with the cushion of two blatant fouls and warnings before they reach the same outcome.
Then there’s the other side of the double edged sword; in that despite his importance being similar to that of what Vieira and Keane’s were to their sides, he isn’t as irreplaceable as those players were, you feel. That may seem a little hypocritical and flawed in the fact that it’s all relevant to the standard both he and Sunderland are at, and that he is the midtable equivalent, but I would suggest that it would be easier for Sunderland to find a new Lee Cattermole then it was for Arsenal to find a new Patrick Vieira.
This is especially true considering the centre forward and right wing situations are now seemingly rectified. Every new manager likes to add their own spine to a side in the shape of a central defender, central midfielder and centre forward and Martin will be no different in that respect. I always thought it was the next transfer window that O’Neill looked to rectify the midfield and defence aspects of this. Ideally Cattermole would have had a new partner to play alongside in this re-shape but it could be that O’Neill carries an extra interest in the form of Meyler and Colback from here on in, because the main problem I see with the situation is Cattermole’s inability to change. Martin O’Neill also told Sun FM that “He has to curb this lunging. There’s the possibility to do some damage to other players. We have to cut that out”. But we’ve heard all this before.
So, to keep using the Vieira example, while Wenger put up with this side of his game, O’Neill seems hell bent on Cattermole changing, or certainly on him restraining. I’m not sure he can. Cattermole is possibly as evolved as he’ll ever be as a footballer, and to be fair to him, his maturity in the tackle and newly found sense of restrainment has been more than palpable under his new manager. The frustrating thing about his dismissal the other night was the fact that it followed some nice control on the ball from Lee; something which O’Neill probably encouraged due to the despair of our lack of abilty in keeping the ball this season. But that red mist brought on by his frustration was, and has always been, reflected by the crunching and reckless tackle. A moment of thoughtlessness that may not be able to be just erased from somebody’s personality due to its spontaneous nature.
O’Neill’s patience also seems tested a little more on this occasion. He added that Lee “has to look at the situation now. He’s been sent off five times at the football club and you have to say it’s maybe three too many”. And credit to the gaffer for refusing to go all out with the conspiracy theory, subtle class has always been his forte. To be fair to Wenger, Arsenal and Veira, this became less of a problem for the Frenchman as his career progressed.
Can that career path be replicated by Lee? Seemingly against the grain, I’d like to see him given the chance because I think he is that important to us. Cast your eyes over Colback and Meyler all you like, they don’t give us the presence that Cattermole does. I certainly think Newcastle’s midfielders will be happy in his absence from upcoming North East derby.