TWO YEARS ago, Lee Cattermole was among the black-tied audience to watch then Sunderland team-mate Simon Mignolet take to the stage and earn the plaudits.
Mignolet was crowned North East Football Writers’ Player of the Year after a stunning series of performances which would ultimately earn him a move to Liverpool.
Cattermole cast envious glances.
As an ex-Middlesbrough trainee, the Teessider knew plenty of the hundreds of the region’s football glitterati gathered together at Durham’s Ramside Hall to recognise Mignolet’s form, and was keen to one day follow in the Belgian’s footsteps.
Since achieving that ambition by being awarded the accolade for 2014, a delighted Cattermole has pondered what took him to the prize.
It’s been quite a ride for the 26-year-old over the last 18 months.
When he returned from a long-term knee injury in the summer of 2013, he found himself ostracised by Paolo Di Canio and forced to train with the kids to progress his rehabilitation.
Even in the early days of Gus Poyet, it wasn’t plain sailing for Cattermole – an eighth red card of his career at Hull City and then a prolonged pursuit from Stoke City in the January transfer window.
But since Sunderland’s decision to reject the overtures from the Potters, Cattermole has thrived in the more controlled role handed him by Poyet.
Cattermole has found the consistency which was too often disrupted by injury and suspension earlier in his career, with his pivotal role in Sunderland’s remarkable survival recognised by the North East’s press pack.
“I was really chuffed with it,” he said.
“It’s difficult sometimes for players to pick up the papers and not read the nicest things about them.
“But I think any award where you are recognised is great.
“I’ve been to the actual awards night previously with Simon Mignolet and I was sat there thinking it was something I wanted to achieve.
“When I got the phone call, I was chuffed.
“Since being given the award, I’ve thought back about the year.
“I came back from a six-month knee injury which a lot of people don’t mention.
“Then I had to deal with the (Di Canio) situation, the Hull suspension and the thing with Stoke.
“A lot went on, but I had to stay focused.
“You have to keep working towards your next game.
“I learned a lot about myself last year, and to do with football.
“I came through and I feel like I’m stronger for it.”
Cattermole has incurred a suspension this season, but only for the occupational hazard of five yellow cards - a one-match lay-off which saw him miss the draw against Everton prior to the international break.
That has left Cattermole with a three-week break between games, but he has made a conscious effort to keep himself sharp for his return at Leicester City tomorrow.
“I learned from previous times when I’d been out and you maybe take your foot off the gas a little bit,” he said.
“I’ve pushed on in training, done a bit extra here and there, looked after myself and used it, on the back of playing 10 full 90 minutes, to have a rest.”
Cattermole is likely to return to the starting XI at the King Power Stadium, despite replacement Liam Bridcutt’s impressive display against Everton.
Leicester have lost four games on the spin, without even scoring, while Sunderland have moved away from the relegation zone after taking four points out of a possible six.
But Cattermole insists there is no hint of complacency in the Sunderland camp, particularly after the Black Cats were mauled 8-0 at Southampton in their first outing following the last international break.
“Going down there, we know they’ve got a lot of pace in the team and the atmosphere is meant to be electric, like it is with all the teams that come up,” added Cattermole.
“We’ll have to be on our toes and ready.
“It was mentioned yesterday morning our performance after the last international break.
“So we got straight into Leicester and getting prepared for that, and making sure the lads have put their international games to bed.
“We’re all focused on the Leicester game.
“In retrospect, it might have been better to catch them before the break, but we’ve got them now and I’m sure they will have been preparing.
“This is one game there’ll be looking to win. They probably need a win more than us.
“So it’s going to be difficult, but in every game, different teams shoot different things at you and we’ve got enough in the squad, and we’re getting stronger as (injured) players come back.
“You’re seeing that on the training pitch as well. We had a lot of numbers out there yesterday which we haven’t always had.”