During a candid interview this summer, Lee Cattermole revealed the extent of the injury problems that have hampered him in recent seasons.
The 29-year-old missed six months last term with a serious hip injury as Sunderland dropped out of the Premier League.
Oh how Sunderland missed his leadership, character and spirit on the pitch.
Cattermole had undergone hip surgery in September, and revealed that while he had been plagued by the problem for years, he knew this time it was serious and had become ‘too much’.
Now he is pain free and after completing pre-season a fully fit Cattermole led the team out at the Stadium of Light on Friday night.
Sunderland’s chances of a speedy return to the Premier League are far greater with Cattermole in the side. Given how much football he missed last year, his presence this is almost like a new signing.
Ahead of the Derby County game, Darron Gibson’s now infamous outburst had added a giant wad of unwanted extra pressure.
It would have been the last thing boss Simon Grayson would have wanted, but these incidents can often prove to be turning points.
Taking Friday night’s game in isolation, the attitude, desire, work rate and commitment levels of those 11 that played the full 90 minutes couldn’t be questioned.
Either side could have pinched it, but this was an important result for Sunderland after the Celtic humbling – another defeat would have added further scrutiny on a club feeling the heat.
And Cattermole was at the heart of Sunderland’s performance, outstanding in the centre of midfield.
He won every tackle and had 50 touches of the ball, playing 37 passes with an accuracy rate of 81 per cent and three shots at goal – including a superb half-volley that drew a stunning one-handed save from Scott Carson.
This was Cattermole at his very best. And it was no surprise to see him walk away with the man-of-the-match award.
His 2016-17 campaign never got going as injury curtailed his impact to just nine games.
What a difference a full pre-season programme has made to Cattermole.
He has never been the best technical player and his name ends up in the referee’s notebook too often, but what he lacks in certain areas he more than makes up for in terms of his influence on the game and others around him.
Leading by example, Cattermole was constantly snapping away at the Derby midfield – Tom Huddlestone knew he’d been in a battle – with support from the energetic Didier Ndong.
Those two did the bulk of the hard graft to release the more creative forces of George Honeyman, Aiden McGeady and Lewis Grabban.
Grayson praised Cattermole’s influence post-match, leading by example the expression used.
Sunderland aren’t overwhelmed by natural leaders, Cattermole is the driving force and captain in John O’Shea’s absence.
The Championship is an unforgiving beast, often with three games a week and Cattermole’s gametime will have to be managed carefully given his recent injury problems.
But if he can stay match-fit then this division is his for the taking.
As Grayson has eluded too on many occasions, it will be a slow process to turn Sunderland’s fortunes around, a club that has become too used to losing.
Further reinforcements are needed in central defence, along with more midfield creativity and at least another striker, but there were plenty of positives to take from Friday.
One of the biggest was Cattermole. The club’s midfield general has a key role to play on the pitch and in the dressing room.
Central midfield is an area of relative strength for Sunderland with Cattermole, Ndong, Jack Rodwell, Darron Gibson and the returning Paddy McNair vying for a place.
Cattermole will be among the first names on the teamsheet as Grayson looks to mould a team capable of competing at the right end of the table.
After years of strife and toil, Sunderland are looking to rebuild this campaign – with a reborn Cattermole at the heart of the action.