MARTIN O’Neill will talk to Lee Cattermole before deciding whether to risk his captain at West Bromwich Albion this afternoon.
He has told the Sunderland midfielder his current situation is not a headache he wants in future.
A booking today will rule Cattermole out of next week’s Tyne-Wear derby. Resting him increases the risk of suspension for the FA Cup quarter-finals.
Cattermole has been cautioned nine times this season. A tenth before April 8 will incur a two-match ban.
For a player who O’Neill joked “could pick a booking up coming out of the bath” it presents an awkward dilemma.
“I have given it a little thought,” the manager admitted. “I tried to dismiss it but it is important to have a talk with him. Knowing him he will want to play and get on with it.”
Craig Gardner and Jack Colback are fit and although David Vaughan could be involved, he may not be considered match-fit enough to start. O’Neill therefore has options, but Cattermole was the outstanding performer in last week’s FA Cup win over Arsenal.
“Lee Cattermole has played very well here indeed,” said the manager. “I brought him back into the team for Saturday’s game and that was a tough enough decision but he is raring to go and was excellent for us.”
If Cattermole is still on nine bookings tonight a caution in the derby, or at home to Liverpool six days later, will rule him out of the FA Cup trip to Everton.
The Stockton-born 23-year-old was banned three times last season – once for five bookings, twice for red cards in his first three Premier League games of the campaign. He also missed O’Neill’s first match, at home to Blackburn Rovers, after his fifth caution this term.
While O’Neill accepts a suspension is more or less inevitable, it is not a situation he is prepared to put up with forever. All Cattermole’s nine bookings have been for rash tackles.
“He can do better over the course of time,” he said. “We need to get to the stage where we are not coming every season fearful he has a two-match ban hanging over him halfway through February. He can help himself but I do think referees are more inclined to book him by reputation.”
But he added: “I am not giving him the go-ahead or totally on his side but I think he has genuinely tried to (rein in) and in his overall game he is doing very well.”
Ineligible for the last two games against parent club Arsenal, on-loan striker Nicklas Bendtner has had extra time to recover from a broken nose and adapt to the protective mask he will wear. Matt Kilgallon is also in contention.
Though O’Neill feels the timing of next week’s friendlies is “not ideal”, they could have advantages for the Black Cats.
England’s Fraizer Campbell and Ireland’s James McClean have had morale-boosting first call-ups, while Vaughan and Craig Gordon arguably have more chance of playing for their countries than their clubs in the coming days. Gordon is recovering from knee surgery, while Vaughan had his second training session yesterday after an ankle problem.
Of Gordon, O’Neill said: “He has a chance of going along but I am not so sure he has a chance of playing. He has had a battle on since I have been here. It seems to go well and then he has a little setback sometimes but it is a long, long time to be out psychologically. It is great to go there even if he’s not involved.
“David Vaughan has been really terrific, I’d have perhaps rushed him back two months ago but we have not had to do that. That is maybe a better sign. Connor Wickham played against Blackburn after two days’ training in five weeks.”
The Cup tie at Everton will again be on ITV, as all Sunderland’s games in the competition have been. The March 17 game kicks off at 12.45pm.
Meanwhile, youngster Michael Liddle has joined Accrington Stanley on a one-month loan, and Bury will borrow goalkeeper Trevor Carson until April 3.