Competition has been the name of the game during the friendly fire of Sunderland’s pre-season.
While the Black Cats players have been tuning up on the pitch and the training ground, Gustavo Poyet has been assembling a squad to try and ensure there is no let-up once the practice sessions move down a gear.
The job is not done yet – Lee Congerton has not yet been able to supply the quantity and quality his coach demands – although he has another couple of weeks to do so, but there will be more than a few anxious glances when Poyet pins up his first team-sheet.
At 6ft 8in tall, Costel Pantilimon does not need to be kept on his toes but his not inconsiderable presence means last season’s player of the year, Vito Mannone, could start this campaign sat on the bench at West Bromwich Albion this afternoon.
It is the most interesting but by no means the only battle within the Sunderland dressing room.
Connor Wickham and Steven Fletcher will be hoping for rather than expecting selection – perhaps together if the final pre-season friendly against Real Betis is any indication. Adam Johnson and Will Buckley must stake their claims bfore Borini – or anyone else for that matter – arrives and Santiago Vergini must make sure that when Billy Jones is fit enough to make his debut, it is not at his expense.
Then there is the midfield, where Jack Rodwell, Liam Bridcutt and Sebastian Larsson have all signed in 2014 (the Swede returning rather than joining for the first time).
All logic points to Lee Cattermole being left on the sidelines. But then the Teessider (pictured right) has made a mockery of many an obituary of his Black Cats career. Cattermole is about as good an advert as you will get for healthy competition, so it is no surprise he is licking his lips at the thought of doing battle once more. “We’ve added a lot of quality and we’ve got a lot of people vying for the same shirt,” he says. “It’s healthy. It keeps everyone on their toes.
“The players who start on Saturday will have the backing of the guys on the bench as well. We’ve got a strong group of lads who are all raring to go.”
With more competition to come, it seems. Poyet is determined that the seventh signing of the summer, Buckley, will not be Sunderland’s last, even if Borini escapes their clutches. Cover at left-back and another wide player would be particularly welcome.
“It’s always that last week (of the transfer window when much of the business is done),” Cattermole says. “That’s normal. People try to do the best deals for their club. If we end up with this squad for the rest of the year it’s good enough to compete.
“We’ve just got to keep approaching every game as if this is our squad and anything which comes is a bonus.”
Bridcutt’s January arrival was supposed to signal the end of Cattermole, but a move to Stoke City broke down and he started 12 of the last 15 matches. “I’ve always tried to give my best,” reflects the former Middlesbrough midfielder. “I think when I’ve been playing I’ve played well. If I’m in the team it’s obviously because I deserve to. It’s good to have competition from Liam.
“I’ll learn things off him and he’ll learn things off me. It’s obvious that you need that. You can’t just have one player in the whole position all season, there’s going to be injuries and suspensions. Competition is healthy.”
As well as keeping him on his toes, Bridcutt has forced Cattermole to expand his game. Both are natural holding midfielders, but whereas Cattermole is more rugged, the Scotland international is a cultured deep-lying playmaker of the sort Poyet never likes to be without.
At times in the second half of last season Cattermole’s form was good enough to force the Uruguayan to play him alongside Bridcutt, and it brought out new elements in Cattermole’s game.
“Over the years I’ve been at Sunderland there’s not been too many defensive-minded midfield players,” he points out. “The likes of Jack (Colback) and Jordan Henderson want to get forward, so I’ve been left with more responsibility for defending. But now we’ve got other guys who can do that.
“We’ve got a stronger squad and we’re looking to do well.”
Today’s game is as important pyschologically as anything else. Sunderland began 2013-14 with one point from their first eight Premier League matches, a handicap that made the coming months unneccessarily uncomfortable.
“It’s important to go into the first game confident of what we’ve done in pre-season and keep trying to put that onto the pitch,” comments Cattermole. “If it doesn’t work for whatever reason on Saturday we know it’s going to be a long, hard season.
“We’ll have good and bad spells over different times of the year and we’ve just got to not panic. Last year showed we can’t expect to win every game, it’s just not going to happen.
“We’ve got to be realistic. It’s going to be a long season and we’ve just got to be confident on Saturday and hope we can get off to a good start, but it should be a good season.
“We’re know it’s going to be a long season and we can’t expect too much but we’ve got to go into this season feeling confident.”