It is fair to say Lee Cattermole has long divided opinion among Sunderland supporters. Perhaps all or certainly most of us appreciate the commitment, that desire to win or at least avoid defeat, that epitomises his game. We may even, occasionally, respect his willingness to ‘take one for the team’. And opposing fans often say he’s someone they’d like in their teams.
But is he now being caught out once too often, and too expensively, even at Championship level? Is he, quite bluntly, a liabilty? Or do we take a kinder view and say ‘let’s not be swayed by one red card, the first in four years, there’s plenty more he has to offer Sunderland’? …. Chris Weatherspoon*, a fan and a seasoned writer on things SAFC, has a view and it’s a harsh one.
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It’s time to say goodbye…
To look down on Lee Cattermole has long been in vogue. Ever since he nigh on delimbed Scott Parker with a dreadful challenge while playing for Wigan Athletic at the age of just 20, the man who has plied his trade on Wearside for much of his career has found himself in the crosshairs of pundits and referees alike.
In the eight years since Cattermole joined Sunderland from Wigan, back in the summer of 2009, he has amassed 73 bookings at a rate not far shy of one every other game. There have been six early baths. Prior to Saturday’s trip to Wolves, Cattermole had entered the referee’s notebook six times already this season.
That venture to Molineux saw another yellow card added to his tally. Then, a mere 54 seconds later, yellow turned red. Cattermole, having been somewhat harshly booked moments earlier, displayed a leaden touch and, in the resulting lunge to regain possession, upended Diogo Jota. Referee Jeremy Simpson didn’t take too long to decide it merited reaching into his pocket once more.
Chris Coleman would lament that the first booking was not dissimilar to plenty of other tackles in the game that Simpson didn’t deem worthy of a caution, and he would have a point: were one to compile a register of players whereby their “reputation precedes them”, Cattermole would surely reside somewhere near the top.
Contrary to the wider narrative, last weekend’s dismissal was his first red card in over four years.
Despite the hefty number of bookings he still manages to accrue, Cattermole has changed as a player over the last half decade or so. He is less rash, less willing to hurl himself through the air with little to no control over his own body. That many onlookers still hark back to tired descriptions of him as a thug, or worse, is representative of quite how reckless he was in his earlier days; his actions as a youngster have cast a long shadow.
It would seem, therefore, that to call for the curtain on Cattermole’s Sunderland career right now would be grossly unfair. After all, Saturday’s red card was, at least in terms of his disciplinary record over the past five years, a blip rather than the norm. Cattermole has, to all intents and purposes, cleaned up his act.
Yet if the Wolves dismissal represented an anomaly in a disciplinary sense, it was indicative of a wider theme that has become increasingly apparent as the current season has progressed. Cattermole, just 29-years old, looks as if his best days are long behind him.
Evidently, his is a thankless task. Sunderland’s plunge out of the Premier League has until recent weeks continued apace, as if the club feels residing anywhere other than the bottom three of a given league table is anathema. Cattermole is surrounded by players who are plainly either unfit for purpose or unwilling to expend the required exertions to help lift the club from the mire.
However, far from being a shining light amid the darkness of the current situation, Cattermole himself is one of the chief culprits in the club’s struggles.
Prior to this year, he had never played professional football outside of the top tier of English football. Plenty in the summer felt the club was well placed for a playoff push with Cattermole and Didier Ndong in the spine of the side. To many, it was difficult to find a better central midfield pairing.
Perhaps it was the optimism of summer, the buoyancy of mood that a blank slate provides. Whatever, such assertions have proven drastically wide of the mark. Cattermole’s slide has been particularly alarming. He has gone from being a Premier League “lifer” to a man who looks woefully off the pace a full division below.
Bookings have been collected not as a result of over-exuberance but because of Cattermole’s inability to keep pace with adversaries. Numerous times this season he has returned to his old impetuous ways, flicking out a leg to impede an opponent, knowing full well that he is unable to win the ball. The subsequent yellow card would not be so troubling if it wasn’t for the fact that it renders Cattermole completely toothless thereon.
Simon Grayson’s reign might have been slightly – though only slightly – less troubled had he learned to substitute the central midfielder after each time he was booked.
Such toothlessness is the direct result of the – rather painful – realisation that Cattermole’s body is slowly giving up on him. Look up the term “combative midfielder” in any footballing dictionary and an image of a high-shorted individual in red and white stripes will peer back at you. His is a career built on hassling and harrying, on making life uncomfortable for others. Yaya Toure once remarked that Cattermole had been one of his toughest ever opponents, such was the pestering the Ivorian endured in successive trips to Wearside.
Now, Cattermole seems unable to replicate such feats. Many have feared his absence through suspension, yet a more appropriate phobia in recent years would be injury-related. As the years have gone on, so the injuries have mounted up. Only once has Cattermole played in more than 30 league games in a season while wearing a Sunderland shirt. Last season, as the club was relegated without a whimper, Cattermole managed just eight appearances.
Whilst not quite Kirchhoffian, his injury record is startling. Knee problems ruled him out of almost all the 2012/13 season while back issues have plagued him across three separate campaigns. Foot, groin and shoulder injuries have been gathered up in something resembling affliction bingo. Last season’s exile was induced via the tearing of cartilage in his hip.
That hip injury was one which had been festering for a while, and surgery was undertaken in the hope of fixing the problem once and for all. Instead, it appears to have made his problems worse. Never the fastest, the old Cattermole was at least agile, able to adjust and sneak into crevices and nick the ball away from unsuspecting attackers. Now he lumbers slowly and lugubriously, always one step behind and destined to slip further. Far from dominating opposing midfielders, Cattermole now finds himself on the back foot with worrying frequency, struggling to exert a foothold at a level that, just a couple of years ago, he would have sauntered through with ease.
He has always been a limited footballer in a technical sense, even if his range of passing has often been lazily dismissed. Now his slowing of reflexes is laying bare any inadequacies yet further. Saturday’s second booking came after a first touch that resembled an elephant’s. At other times this season it has been much too deft, causing the ball to get tied up beneath him, and precious milliseconds to eke by as he attempts to rectify the situation. Too hard. Too soft. Never just right.
The Championship may not possess the skill of the league above, but its competitive nature ensures there is little room for dallying in the middle. Cattermole’s slowdown is painfully highlighted by fleet-footed upstarts. As his body betrays him he finds himself relieved of the bite that has allowed him to carve out a solid career. For an idea of what this means for him as a footballing force, think Samson without the hair.
Cattermole has been much maligned at various junctures in his Sunderland career, but to look at his current malaise and see it is a the norm is unfair. In Gus Poyet’s famed “miracle”, Cattermole was integral, leading from the front and pulling his teammates to safety. The following season, when eventual champions Chelsea came to town, Cattermole put in a virtuoso display, resembling something akin to a human wall. Similarly, when Sam Allardyce conjured safety from another perilous situation, Cattermole was at the forefront of the fightback.
His early days were marred by ill-discipline. He changed, toned down his approach and was a better player for it. Yet the bumps and bruises have taken their toll. His reputation continues to go before him; no longer can his legs carry him past it.
In a game that is perennially speeding up, Lee Cattermole can do little but watch it sail by. It is difficult to see how his inclusion as a Sunderland first-teamer can be merited for much longer.
* Chris Weatherspoon is a chartered accountant by trade and a budding Sunderland chronicler in his spare time. Having attended his first game in the final season at Roker Park aged six, he obtained a season ticket in the Stadium of Light’s opening year and has never moved since. In the summer, having endured 20 years at the ground, he decided to write a book about it all. Short-Changed was published in November 2017.