The Agenda: Can Lee Cattermole drive a Sunderland revival?

Chief sports writer Mark Douglas considers whether midfielder Lee Cattermole  is a changed man - and what that would mean for Sunderland

Richard Sellers/Getty Images Lee Cattermole of Sunderland battles with Loic Remy of Newcastle
Lee Cattermole of Sunderland battles with Loic Remy of Newcastle

Here is a date of potential significance for Sunderland’s season: February 8, 2013.

The Black Cats were playing Arsenal and in the process of losing a fourth straight game in a run which would ultimately cost Martin O’Neill his job. It was also the last time Lee Cattermole picked up a yellow card.

He’s been involved in six games this season (five starts) and not picked a single caution.

In fact, his disciplinary record since a red card at MK Dons in the early stages of the Capital One Cup reads 14 appearances and just two yellows.

Now that is not to suggest that Cattermole deserves praise for remedying a damaging trend which was threatening to undermine his Premier League career.

However, when you have people like Joey Barton still branding him “Clattermole” in a particularly unhelpful Tweet posted on Sunday morning, it is worth noting the subtle change in the Sunderland midfielder’s game.

For all his critics – and they remain, even after a derby performance of considerable mettle – it is worth noting four of Sunderland’s last five managers have immediately made him a central figure in their team.

The odd-one-out, Paolo Di Canio, is understood to have taken against him when he approached the boss in his role as captain to voice minor concerns about the inflexibility of the regime.

There was room for only one Alpha male on Di Canio’s watch but that was counter-productive.

For all that attention has been drawn to his failings – and the next priority for the former Middlesbrough man is to enjoy a long run unhindered by the injury problems which have threatened to de-rail him in the past – you cannot deny he has the sort of battling mentality that Sunderland need.

Poyet has been quick to recognise that. He said: “I’m surprised Cattermole was axed because I’m sure we’re going to make him into a much better player than people think.

“We know how important he is for the club. He’s paying attention and always asking questions and learning. If there was one person who needed to play in this game from the beginning it was Lee Cattermole.

“There was no doubt in my mind about who was starting in the middle. I’m sure he’s going to get much better.”

Cattermole’s re-emergence as a central figure for Sunderland this season is an interesting and potentially pivotal development.

It has been obvious for years Sunderland are destined to keep clattering their collective heads against a glass ceiling for as long as they fail to address the absence of a truly creative force in the centre of midfield.

Lorik Cana was probably the last player they had in this mould and while Cabral might have had the potential to do a job in there, it is suspicious that Poyet has joined Kevin Ball and Di Canio in being suspicious of the former Basel man.

Cattermole deployed alongside a creative player would be a really interesting development for Sunderland but, until January at least, Poyet must find the right mix.

Moving the tidy, efficient and industrious Jack Colback into the centre is a start.

Poyet can change things further but a three-man midfield with full-backs kicking on might be the way forward from here.

The fact he was prepared to bench Emanuele Giaccherini while limiting Ki to substitute duties shows Poyet is prepared to make big decisions – without alienating the squad, of course.

A training-ground source told the Journal before the Swansea game training had been transformed since Poyet came in.

Clear, methodical instructions had been communicated to the players but there was an underlying respect for the squad too they felt had been missing from Di Canio.

It has been noted the presence of Charlie Oatway, a British voice with experience working his way through the lower leagues in England, has proved a marked difference from Di Canio’s all-Italian backroom staff - and Poyet has been prepared to offer every player a clean slate.

The early headline grabbing move by Poyet was to bring back Phil Bardsley, whose first 90 minutes since emerging from the nuclear chill of Di Canio’s decision to cast him aside was suitably rusty.

As much as it was a practical move - Sunderland need experience in that back four as they plot a way of the crisis - it was also a message to a dressing room which had been branded one of the worst in professional football he understood they had been hung out to dry for previous failings.

They enjoyed vindication over the weekend but it was a temporary reprieve and the manager will know that.

All Sunday gave Gus Poyet was an opportunity. Nothing more.

Such is the perilous nature of Sunderland’s league position it will take more than three points – however richly they have been celebrated over the last 72 hours - to transform a campaign in danger of being snuffed out if a performance had not been summoned on Sunday.

The next step for Poyet is to extend his early gains into consistent and sustained improvement. That was a task which proved beyond Di Canio and O’Neill. For both managers it proved an inconvenience - for Poyet slipping back into old habits would be catastrophic.

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David Whetstone
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Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
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