Chris Young column - Lee Cattermole deal must be Sunderland’s priority if they stay up

Lee Cattermole

Lee Cattermole

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LEE CONGERTON must hate April.

In his 13 months as Sunderland’s sporting director, Congerton has twice faced a period of purgatory at this time of the season; a ‘what if?’ window where precious few concrete decisions can be taken due to the threat of relegation.

It was no surprise that reports over the weekend suggested Stoke - who came so close to signing Cattermole in January 2014 - are interested in signing the ex-Middlesbrough man when he enters the final year of his contract this summer

Everything hinges on Premier League survival.

Without the riches and magnetism of the top flight, a whole different set of rules applies.

Rather than begin to set in stone plans for pre-season and next year, Congerton is forced to draw up possibilities for a continued Premier League existence, plus contingency options for life in the Championship.

When Sunderland clearly need to bring in a better standard of personnel during the summer, the uncertainty now doesn’t help in lining up players on the quiet.

It doesn’t help in deciding the futures of the current squad either.

Now, if Sunderland are relegated, then most of us can confidently predict those likely to earn an instant move back to the Premier League – the likes of Jermain Defoe, Connor Wickham, Costel Pantilimon and Lee Cattermole will all inevitably attract top flight suitors.

There’s always another club in the bottom half of the table willing to overlook the black mark of relegation – Sunderland have done it themselves regularly over recent seasons.

But even if Sunderland do ultimately stop up, nothing can be done on the futures of big-hitting trio Cattermole, Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher – all approaching the final 12 months of their contracts – until survival is rubber-stamped.

From the club’s point of view, they do not want to be committing themselves to any big contracts if they are about to drop into the Championship.

And from the players’ stance, they will rightly want to continue playing at the highest level possible.

Invariably, everything gets put on ice and then we have this same old pattern of uncertainty when players get into the final year of their deals – Connor Wickham, Jack Colback, Phil Bardsley and Seb Larsson all ultimately costing Sunderland a few quid one way or the other over the last year.

In fairness, even if Sunderland’s Premier League status was assured, they might not be in a rush to re-sign Fletcher after just four goals this season. He is by far the likeliest of the trio to depart in the summer, if the club can recoup some of the £12million spent on the Scot three years ago.

While the legal process hangs over Johnson’s head too, the winger is likely to remain in limbo.

But Cattermole... yes, he’s a different matter altogether.

Cattermole – as was the case with the rest of them – hardly covered himself in glory against Crystal Palace, with attention notably drawn to his failure to track Yannick Bolasie for the winger’s third goal.

After starting the game so positively, Cattermole once again went into his shell when he went into the referee’s notebook for a cynical shirt tug midway through the first half.

It’s a mental block, the 27-year-old needs to overcome. Cattermole is to be applauded for showing more disciplinary restraint (he’s not been sent off now since November 2013) but that shouldn’t equal anonymity once he’s been booked.

However, Cattermole remains the driving force and natural leader of this side.

In the tunnel before a game, Cattermole is invariably the one cajoling and encouraging his team-mates. Just look at how Sunderland missed him at the turn of the year through injury.

Sunderland’s struggles shouldn’t prompt everyone at the club to be disregarded as ‘rubbish’ either. A scout for a Premier League rival told me earlier this season that he hadn’t seen a better defensive midfielder in the country than Cattermole at his best.

It was no surprise that reports over the weekend suggested Stoke – who came so close to signing Cattermole in January 2014 – are interested in signing the ex-Middlesbrough man when he enters the final year of his contract this summer.

The Potters won’t be the only ones casting an eye at him.

If – and yes, it’s still a big ‘if’ – Sunderland retain their Premier League status, then signing Cattermole up to a new deal has to be the immediate priority.

There have already been tentative talks between Congerton and Cattermole’s camp, but while summer change is needed at the Stadium of Light, it shouldn’t come at the expense of losing a key cog who is holding the machine together.

Sunderland don’t want Cattermole to be another Colback or Bardsley who leaves for nothing, and neither do they want a repeat of the Wickham situation which went on and on and on before the club eventually had to meet the striker’s wage demands.

It’s a situation which needs a favourable, and hasty, resolution.