Former Sunderland favourite on Lee Cattermole revival, secret behind Josh Maja form, Didier Ndong saga and January priorities
Lee Cattermole has answered his Sunderland critics and is now playing some of the best football of his career.
That’s the view of former striker Stephen Elliott, who has praised the impact Sunderland’s midfield general is having on and off the pitch at the Stadium of Light.
Elliott – who scored 22 goals in 81 appearances for the Black Cats from 2004-07 – was speaking on our weekly SAFC Facebook Live Q&A.
The 34-year-old ex-Republic of Ireland international hoped for a speedy resolution regarding contract talks with 19-year-old top scorer Josh Maja and was full of praise for Jack Ross with the Scot aiming to lead Sunderland back to the Championship at the first attempt.
Elliott also had strong opinions on Didier Ndong and Papy Djilobodji following their departures having been AWOL all summer.
Here are some of the highlights from the discussion.
Elliott said: “Lee Cattermole has been outstanding and him and Chris Maguire have probably been two of the better players. If you’ve got players like Cattermole in your team, with that experience, then you can only learn from it.
“There was a lot of talk about whether his legs had gone or had he been at the club too long. I did a talk-in last year and somebody said to me ‘Lee Cattermole has to go, he’s bad for the dressing room and he’s this, that and the other’.
“I stood up for Cattermole and I said that you don’t become a bad player overnight.
“Sometimes, as a player, you take the burden of being involved and the longest-serving in a team that has been struggling. He took that burden on himself a little bit too much and I think he’s now embraced the new focus of the club and we’ve seen it in his performances.
“I think he’s answered his critics by doing it on the pitch, which is the best thing to do as a footballer.
“That burden has probably gone from his shoulders because the team are winning and the stadium is buzzing again.
“Baring in mind he’s been playing as one of the main players in a team that has been struggling for years, you take it really hard, and he probably took it harder than most.
“But now we’re seeing the real Lee Cattermole and long may it continue.
“You don’t want to cripple the club financially and you’re aware that he’s on bigger wages than the rest of the lads but while he’s here and playing well and leading on the front foot, I would imagine that the younger lads are learning from him.”
Cattermole also has three goals to his name in 10 League One appearances.
Elliott added: “He’s starting to get goals now as well and you’d arguably say he’s playing the best football he’s played in the last four or five years.
“He’s a good technical player and I’m sure he practices his finishing in training.”
The in-form teenager has helped soften the blow of losing Charlie Wyke to injury.
Elliott said: “I’ll tell you how good Josh is - we’re not talking about Charlie Wyke or Jerome Sinclair, that tells you how well he’s done.
“Before the season we’re thinking that we need a striker because we only have youth team players, but Maja has come in and is scoring goals.
“Some of his build-up play is improving, but he scores goals and can turn left or right-footed around the ball. If you see his goal against Peterborough, his first touch always sets him up for a shot.
“He’s always thinking ‘can I set it up for a strike?’. And that confuses defenders, the fact he can go on both feet.
“He’s been a revelation and I’ve been really impressed with him. You don’t want young quality at the club going away on the cheap. I know he’s underage and there would be a tribunal, but you want to reward players for doing well and I think he deserves a new contract.
“He’s young but you don’t want a scenario where somebody comes in at the end of the season and takes him off on the cheap.”
On the job being done by Jack Ross?
Elliott said: “I have been very impressed with his manner, everything about him, he is in control of his emotions and that is a sign of a good manager.
“Every time I listen to him he says the right things, he knows how he wants his team to play. It is difficult when you have a squad of 25 to 26 players and keeping them all happy when only 14 or 15 are getting regular football but so far, he has managed to do everything perfectly.”
On the impact of Chris Maguire?
“He has played at some clubs with big fanbases before and he plays to the crowd a little bit which the fans are enjoying but most importantly he has good quality on the ball,” said Elliott.
“Moreso than most players at this level and he has made some terrific assists and scored good goals too, he brings a composure and is always willing to take responsibility.”
On Didier Ndong and Papy Djilobodji?
Ndong was served notice last month and the club confirmed on Thursday an ‘amicable’ agreement had been reached to be compensated by the 24-year-old when he finds a new club.
Elliott said: “You’ve got to look at the players and who is advising them, it wasn’t ideal and it was a bit of a mess if we’re being honest. The club are probably looking at it now as cutting their losses and moving forward which is probably the best way.
“Now that’s been agreed, the club can finally walk away and say ‘listen, that’s the past, we move on with a new group of players who are buying into the way we want to play’. There are no bad eggs in the dressing room and everyone is wanting to look forward.
“It’s gone now, there were many mistakes before over the years in the Premier League but you can’t look back because that’s what happens at football clubs. Hindsight is a beautiful thing and some people have to be questioned for what they were doing and how these situations developed.
“But the new team that are in there with the new owners, they’ve come in and realised this and tried to clean it up and that’s why the club is moving forward and on the up. No player is bigger than the club, no matter what they think.”
On January and whether Sunderland need to do any business?
“Obviously you can always improve and there’s always levels of players that you can improve on.
“It’s one of those though, Jack Ross will have been working with these lads since the beginning of pre-season and they all know his style of play now. But it depends on who stays and who goes.
“If Oviedo goes or Cattermole goes then there might be an opportunity to bring somebody in. Maybe another winger or another defender.
“But you don’t want to bring players in for the sake of it, you want to bring players in that you know will make a difference to the team. I’m sure Jack Ross will be well aware of what he needs.”