Lee Cattermole is asked to sum up Sunderland’s remarkable season in one word.
Contrary to a certain perception of him, Cattermole does not jump in.
He pauses and takes a few seconds before settling on “difficult”.
Asked why he stalled before answering, a player who has a reputation for sometimes being speedier in his reactions than his thought processes has an explanation.
He said: “I was going to use a swear word!”
It has been that kind of year for Cattermole, who began as persona non grata under a certain son of Rome before emerging as a critical and pivotal figure in Gus Poyet’s survival effort.
It would be easy to paint it as some sort of redemptive campaign – a player fighting back from the brink to become a hero if the Black Cats stay up.
Yet there have been moments since coming back he would rather forget – a red card at Stoke and those mistakes at Hull and Aston Villa, when he had to be taken off at half-time.
Cattermole always came bounding back and to his credit he has never hid from the public glare – even when he might easily have refused an interview or kept his head down. Do not mistake that for a brass neck, though.
He admits: “I have found it really tough.
“There have been spells where I have had to dig in. There have been highs and lows but the lows completely outweigh the highs.
“You ask yourself load of questions about the season and I said to myself after Christmas as long as I can hold my head high and say I could not have given any more I could live with myself.
“I didn’t want to look back and say, ‘I could have done this or that to make things better’.”
It is ironic, really, Sunderland are finishing the season with a flourish because it has been a drainingcampaign – both mentally andphysically.
Cattermole describes the season as “difficult,” pointing out from the start of the pre-season it feels like they have been under pressure.
At that point it was from a manager who was ultimately hoist from his own petard but it has continued since the autumn as Sunderland attempt to climb out of the relegation mire.
Cattermole explains the team’s problems have sometimes mirrored his own: “From the start of the season – which will never come out – that was the hardest time of my career.
“I came into work to do everything right and give them no excuses to fine me.
“I kept my head down and thought the only way anything gets better, or you improve any situation is staying positive, keep working hard.
“It was the same after Hull, the week after I played well.
“I gave two goals away there and I asked myself what am I going to do? I wasn’t going to sit in a corner and cry and not play for the rest of the season. I knew I had a job to do. I know how important I can be to his team. Football turns so quickly, whether playing well or badly. You have to keep positive.”
Sunderland’s defeat of Cardiff took them out of the bottom three but, with a trip to Old Trafford tomorrow, that could change before a crucial final week.
Ryan Giggs’ ascension has made the Red Devils a more difficult proposition but, as Cattermole points out, Sunderland seem to react better in those situations.
He added: “I am looking at this weekend and thinking we could be safe with a win there.
“If we beat Man U and results go our way and others do not get points then that is us safe. So we have to look for points in every game.
“The same attitude as when we went to Man City. They are points which could keep us up.
“Winning would sum up a crazy season but it probably wouldn’t shock anyone.
“We will have a game plan and the manager sets us up great against the big teams. We will be hard to beat and go there with confidence.
“Then we can maybe enjoy the last two games.”
It is some turnaround from Poyet admitting Sunderland needed a “miracle” after a heavy defeat at White Hart Lane last month.
“Yes there have been times when you thought: have we enough to stay up? Then everything comes out of the woodwork, all the negatives around the club, all the contracts whch are up.
“The lads, though, have answered all the questions and shown how committed they are in the last month and pulled off great performances.
“There is a real belief now like we had in December and January.
“We had good times then and have found that again, but we have also had spells without wins in eight or nine and then again.”
Cattermole reckons the turning point was Everton, when Sunderland played well without collecting the point they deserved.
Cardiff removed a monkey off their collective back.
He said: “Beating Cardiff was more of a relief than anything.
“We put that bad run against the bottom-half teams to bed.
“The home record was bad it has been all season. Which ever way you look at it we do better against the bigger teams.
“If you look at the points we have picked up against them and compare it with the bottom-half results, it is unbelievable.”