SUNDERLAND boss Martin O’Neill is preparing for life without Lee Cattermole between now and the end of the season.
The injured skipper is still hoping to return to the Black Cats’ starting line-up soon to boost the club’s Premier League survival hopes.
But O’Neill – contemplating the final eight games of Sunderland’s season – is not expecting to have his captain back from a stubborn knee injury.
The influential Cattermole has been plagued by knee problems this season, originally twisting his knee in the 0-0 draw with QPR in November before making his first start after that in the 1-0 defeat to Arsenal in February, only to damage the other knee before half-time.
Initial recovery plans failed to bear fruit and the 24-year-old – restricted to just 10 games this season – has now had an injection and rest from the start of the month hoping that the knee problem will right itself.
O’Neill, though, says that if Cattermole does return before the end of the season, it will be a bonus.
He told the Echo: “Lee has a few more days to go after having had the injection.
“The specialist told him not to do a great deal and while he is obviously working with the physiotherapist, he is not doing anything that will risk damaging his knee.
“We hope for the best but, to me, if he comes back this season, then that would be a bonus – and an unexpected bonus.
“We may have to cope without him.
“And even if he does successfully come back from the injury, he will still be nowhere near match fit.”
It is another season where Sunderland have seen too little of Cattermole on the pitch and O’Neill admits that his absence has been keenly felt in the current campaign.
“We have had to do without him pretty much all season,” the manager acknowledged. “He has definitely been a loss to us, no question about that.
“We have missed that drive, the things that he would give us, but we have had to make do without it.
“We’ve had different combinations in midfield, we’ve had to play midfield players at full-back – all those type of things which eventually get lost in the mix.
“It has been a tough old season. It has been tough since the very first day down at the Emirates Stadium and that’s just the way it has been.
“But I think because we’ve been uncomfortably placed, the players are used to that, and should be able to rise to the occasion in these key games ahead.”