LEE CATTERMOLE will be presented with the North East Football Writers’ Player of the Year title at Durham’s Ramside Hall Hotel tomorrow night.
But what part has Sunderland boss Gus Poyet played in the Black Cats’ longest-serving player producing the most consistent run of his stint at the Stadium of Light?
Sunderland writer CHRIS YOUNG speaks with Cattermole, Poyet and ex-Black Cats chairman Niall Quinn about the midfielder’s accolade.
MARTIN O’NEILL hurriedly conducted the obligatory handshakes with the Manchester City bench before making a beeline onto the pitch.
There was no doubting where the then Sunderland manager was heading.
O’Neill had just witnessed a colossal performance from Lee Cattermole in out-battling and out-manoeuvring City behemoth Yaya Toure, as Sunderland began 2012 with a victory that further catapulted them away from relegation danger.
As the exhausted Sunderland midfielder trudged off the field, O’Neill raced to him, put an arm around his shoulder and whispered the appropriate words of praise to the then Black Cats skipper.
It cemented a bond between Cattermole and O’Neill.
The former Middlesbrough trainee would become an integral cog in O’Neill’s blueprint for Sunderland’s regeneration.
It was no coincidence that when Cattermole’s 2012-13 campaign came to a premature end by November due to knee ligament damage – albeit there were a couple of abortive attempts at a comeback – the slump in Sunderland’s form was dramatic.
You just wonder whether a fully-fit Cattermole may have kept O’Neill in the Stadium of Light hotseat a little longer.
Similar could be said for Steve Bruce.
As it was, Cattermole was recuperating from surgery when O’Neill was given the bullet the following March and Paolo Di Canio recruited with scant regard paid to the baggage accompanying the Italian.
Cattermole wasn’t chuffed with the decision and is understood to have let Di Canio know it when the two ultimately clashed.
Perhaps it was inevitable that alpha male Di Canio wouldn’t be able to handle the likes of Cattermole and Phil Bardsley – two of the strongest characters in the Sunderland dressing room.
Both were unceremoniously hawked around on the transfer market in that doomed summer of dealings by Di Canio and Roberto De Fanti.
Fortunately, injuries would scupper the pair’s departure, given their subsequent contribution towards Sunderland’s escape.
Di Canio eventually realised he had to take the pragmatic approach and in the final throes of his Sunderland reign, desperately offered an olive branch to Cattermole.
However, the truce was brief; only lasting until the dressing room implosion after Di Canio’s last game at West Brom.
Caretaker boss Kevin Ball immediately restored Cattermole to the starting XI and Gus Poyet followed suit.
Both instantly grasped what eluded Di Canio; that Cattermole’s sheer determination was an imperative asset in the battle against the drop.
Poyet admits he was warned that Cattermole was a loose cannon from others within the game before taking the Sunderland job.
An eighth red card of Cattermole’s careerm in Poyet’s third game at the helmm did little to dispel those theories.
When Cattermole returned from suspension, Poyet managed to squeeze the former Wigan man and Ki Sung-Yueng into the same XI, but it looked to be a short-term measure.
Poyet clearly wanted to bring in his old Brighton favourite, Liam Bridcutt, to the Premier League in the January window.
Where would that leave Cattermole?
Stoke City’s emergence as serious suitors for Cattermole looked to have provided the perfect solution for Sunderland to balance the books.
However, by the end of that window Poyet had seen in Cattermole what was apparent to both Bruce and O’Neill. There is far more to the Teessider than thunderous tackles and a poor disciplinary record.
In the controlled holding midfield role favoured by Poyet, Cattermole has matured.
He is able to dictate proceedings from the middle of the park. Gone are those wild chases around the pitch which invariably spelled disaster.
“For me, the manager has been a big influence over the last 12 months, over the way I feel on the pitch and staying in control of my own game,” Cattermole told the Echo when asked about Poyet’s contribution to his consistency.
“I know my own role in the team and know that I don’t need to do anymore than I’m doing.
“I’ve always tried to do my job, but then everybody elses as well sometimes.
“I feel like I’m learning every day and that’s quite rare really for a footballer.
“It’s good coming to work and feeling like you’re learning all the time.
“There have been quite a few players tried in that position and I seem to have found myself with the shirt on my back of late and that’s down to me.
“The manager knows what he wants in there and I’ve listened and picked it up.
“I’ve learned quite quickly what he wants, what he means, the things he says and the way he thinks about football..”
Admittedly, the list of contenders to be crowned North East Football Writers’ Player of the Year was not hefty.
But Cattermole’s contribution towards Sunderland’s Premier League survival and their qualification for a first major final in 22 years saw him recognised, particularly after his impressive start to this season.
For Poyet, there was no more worthy winner. “It’s a great decision,” he said.
“It’s good because of what happened in the past. It’s a great recognition that he’s working very hard to be a very important player.
“He’s a player who has really changed for the better.
“He’s always willing to listen, to learn, to adapt, to add to his game.
“When you get that recognition, you deserve it because you’ve done something important.”
Ex-Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn, the man who signed off on Cattermole’s £6million move to the Stadium of Light in the summer of 2009, concurs.
Quinn, a former winner of the award himself, believes Cattermole has matured on and off-the-field after problems with the latter during his younger years.
“Lee has really settled down as a footballer,” said Quinn.
“He played a lot of games at such a young age and by his own admission was a bit haphazard with preparation in the past but he has matured now.
“The test came at Sunderland because it looked like players were being brought in to move him on and he came back with a great response.
“You always knew he was capable of doing it, you just wanted to see him do it more regularly, be more mature and more disciplined.
“He has done that and so he deserves the award. What Lee has to do is to keep understanding how important he is, not just in his own game but to those around him and the influence that he can have.
“He has to be an even better professional next year and the year after.
“He is on a great path now, having taken some wrong turns over the years with his career development, but now he is bang at it and a vital part for Sunderland for the rest of the season.”