PANTOMIME season may still be a few weeks away, but Lee Cattermole knows his Sunderland side arrive with a boatload of ready-made villains on Sunday.
Take your pick Geordies. There’s Steve Bruce, the boyhood Newcastle fan who permanently cut his black-and-white ties when he turned up 12 miles down the road. Or Titus Bramble, former Brat Pack member frustratingly playing the best football of his career in red and white.
Then there’s Cattermole – still remembered at St James’ Park as the coltish midfielder who clattered Alan Shearer on his Middlesbrough debut. It’s not the kind of thing they forget down Barrack Road particularly readily.
“They’ve got a few to choose from, haven’t they?” an amused Cattermole says.
“Steve Bruce is a Geordie fella who is managing Sunderland, so he’ll get some stick. And obviously Titus is going to get the worst. But Newcastle fans aren’t that keen on me either. They used to hate me when I played for Wigan.
“In a game up there I tackled Joey Barton and it was a fair tackle. To be fair to Joey he came out afterwards and said so, but he was injured and since then the fans have hated me.”
Not that Cattermole is the kind of character who withers in the face of criticism.
The Stockton-born scrapper is only 22, the youngest skipper in the Premier League and a lynchpin of a Sunderland side looking to establish themselves as the North East’s top dogs on Sunday. To do that they will have to run a gauntlet of abuse from a capacity home crowd.
Cattermole acknowledges it will be like nothing he – or many of his inexperienced team-mates – have dealt with before.
“I think when everyone gets to the ground and hears the reception we’re going to get on arriving, that’s when those who haven’t experienced a derby before will take it all in. Everyone has been talking about it all the time at events we’ve been going to as a team.
“I played for Boro in a few derbies against them, but they say that is nothing like this.
“We’re just going to go out there and as long as we can stay calm and play exactly like we have been I think we’ll be okay. Anything can happen in a derby.
“You need a bit of luck. St James’ is a big pitch, but if we can continue playing our football with that extra pass in midfield and do what we’ve been doing, I think we’ve got a good chance.”
A determined Cattermole believes Sunderland are in rude health ahead of the clash.
Clearly under instructions to dampen talk of the Black Cats being favourites, he is generous in his praise of Chris Hughton’s men. But a steely focus has descended with just a few days before the 151st Tyne-Wear tussle.
“I go into every game just wanting to win. All of them are equally important. Obviously, this one is more for the fans. It’s a big game for them because the places are so close, everyone works with Sunderland or Newcastle fans.
“Just to be able to go into work the next day, knowing your team won, you know you’ve got the upper hand until the next fixture. The lads know about the importance of this game and if we can make the fans happy then that’s great.
“A draw? It would not be a bad result. It’s important to keep this run going,” he said. “People said Blackburn was two points dropped, but I thought it was more important not to lose. We’ve probably got the strongest squad Sunderland have had in a long time – we’re playing really well, our confidence is high and we’ll be going there looking to come back with three points.
“Newcastle’s home form has not been the best. Away from home, they’ve had some good wins, so they’re obviously a good team and if they get it right on Sunday it will be tough. But we’re full of confidence and seven unbeaten is a massive achievement.”
For Cattermole, a baying crowd should be a cinch after the turmoil that followed his second red card of the season last month. With no yellow cards since his recall he seems to be over the worst of it now, but there is no doubting that he grew up because of it.
“After that second sending-off it was weird. I was absolutely devastated. I didn’t do anything. I literally ignored every phone call, I didn’t watch Match of the Day or pick up a paper,” he said.
“For two days I just stayed at home, then on the second day, the mate I live with came walking in saying ‘You won’t believe the abuse you’re taking on the radio’. I said ‘cheers!’. That’s why I hadn’t opened any papers or anything. I knew it was all going on.
“I didn’t even speak to anyone about it. I sort of bottled it all up and let my frustration out in training.
“I trained really, really hard for a couple of weeks. I knew stuff was going on about me maybe losing the armband, but the manager did not say one word to me until the day before the Liverpool game.
“Then he came up and said ‘I don’t want you to make a tackle tomorrow. If you have to pull out of a challenge, do so. I need you to play games by being on the pitch. Just your presence on the pitch’. I listened to him and went out and did that. It was hard because I do like to make tackles.
“This year I haven’t missed a training session and now I’m playing full games and on Saturday I covered a distance the best I’ve done in two years, so I’m getting fitter all the time. This is the best I’ve felt for two years.”