Six weeks ago Lee Cattermole was a Sunderland pariah. Tomorrow he will take his usual place in a Black Cats line-up against Newcastle United.
“After four years here the names have changed, but every time I have been fit I seem to have played,” says the Teessider. He claims, therefore, never to have given up hope of featuring in the 137th meeting between the neighbours, but not so long ago you would have got pretty long odds on it.
Even Cattermole admits that during a summer which saw him stripped of the captaincy and his squad number and made to train with the kids he came close to leaving “a couple of times”, and would have done so happily. He jokes about nearly joining League Two Hartlepool United.
But the 25-year-old has emerged the victor of his power struggle with former coach Paolo Di Canio. Not that it was easy for him.
“Very hard to put it into words,” is how Cattermole describes a six-month period he started injured but ended exiled.
“Things happened in the summer and there were a lot of things I was disappointed with from the club in terms of the way I was treated. I understand that is football but there are ways of doing things.
“It was torturous. But I’ve always been quite confident and I’ve got a lot of experienced managers who have backed me. I didn’t lose confidence over anything he (Di Canio) did or the fact he didn’t fancy me. I worked hard with the hope of getting a chance and Bally (Kevin Ball, the caretaker manager who bridged the gap between Di Canio and his successor Gustavo Poyet) gave me that chance.
“All you ever want is a bit of respect and Kevin Ball gave me that straight away.
“I spent most of the summer training with his (under-21) boys. He saw the way I trained and the way I wanted to help them, I demanded from his players.”
Did Cattermole come close to leaving, as Di Canio hoped?
“Very close a couple of times, for whatever reason it didn’t happen,” he replies. “The way it was going I would have left happily. I wasn’t part of the manager’s plans and that can happen in football, but while I’m a Sunderland player I’ll give everything to get us out of trouble.
“(Hartlepool manager) Colin Cooper joked, ‘You can always get a game here...’ and I nearly took it!
“I just want to play football. If you are playing, winning, you are happy.”
The midfielder will not criticise Di Canio’s decision to sideline him. “That’s the way football is these days,” he says. “If things don’t go well, the manager is on his way because it’s such a blow if you drop into the lower divisions.”
Two short sentences saying next to nothing about his relationship with the Italian speak volumes.
“I don’t really know him too well,” Cattermole’s insists. “I didn’t have much to do with him.
“He did a good job last season, but it didn’t really work out for him this season.
”I don’t think the dressing room was ever split. I’ve been in dressing rooms where there have been cliques and little corners, but it wasn’t like that here.
“There were a lot of new lads coming in who didn’t know each other, but we have been working on that. There is a lot of inexperience. It’s made it difficult but that’s the hands we have been dealt.”
Poyet is Sunderland’s fourth manager in 2013, all with very different footballing philosophies from their predecessor.
“It’s not ideal, it’s new info all the time and new ideas,” Cattermole admits, “but hopefully Gus will get a good run now whatever happens because he will make this club successful. Gus has loads of new ideas I have taken in in the last couple of weeks. The way he wants me to play is a lot different to how I have made my career in the game.
“All the players are willing to learn. He is very intelligent, he has played his whole career at the top.
“We have got to listen to him because he was a better player than most of us. He wants me to play more.
“Every footballer enjoys having the ball at their feet.
“If we can spend more time working with the ball everyone will enjoy it.
“I can’t give too much away with how the manager wants us to play differently but we have to defend and not go after the ball quite so much as a group. We don’t want to be pulled around too much as a team and left with big gaps.”
If Cattermole is expecting to see his game develop under Poyet, he feels his personality did under Di Canio. “I am more mature now, 100%,” he reflects.
“The summer was a massive learning curve for me.
“It is the first time I have not been wanted by a manager.
“I was quite happy with how I dealt with it.
“I spoke to a lot of senior players who have been in the same situation. Colin Cooper spoke to me at a game. There were players here, players I have played with in the past, ex-managers and my agent.
“I can’t really tell you what the conversations were.
“I listened and took advice. I kept my mouth shut.
“I kept my head down. The only thing I could affect was what happened if I got my chance.
“You get a lot of anger and you need that release on a Saturday. You want to play and get the buzz. I worked hard, kept my head down and kept believing if I did get a chance I’d be able to perform.”