THE DRAMATIC turnaround in Sunderland’s fortunes over the last 10 days will have been all too familiar for Lee Cattermole.
In five-and-a-half years at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland’s longest-serving first-teamer has seen first-hand the Black Cats’ knack of persistently shooting themselves in the foot when progress appeared to be on the horizon.
There is no desire in the Sunderland hierarchy to embark back upon the managerial merry-go-round yet again, with the instability in the dug-out seen as one of the prime reasons behind the club’s lack of progress over recent seasons. It was never going to be plain-sailing in implementing root and branch reform at the Stadium of Light after changes of personnel and philosophy.
But these “make-or-break” games have almost become second nature for the likes of Cattermole, John O’Shea and Seb Larsson, as war-weary veterans of the relegation dogfight.
Having Cattermole back in the frame for such an encounter, when character, grit and determination are invaluable commodities, is a timely boost for Gus Poyet.
The Teessider has been a huge miss during almost two months on the sidelines with niggling groin and knee problems, albeit he at least hasn’t needed surgery which would have kept him out for much - if not all - of the remainder of this season.
Deputy Liam Bridcutt is perfectly capable of doing the dirty work, but the former Brighton man just isn’t the same driving force as Cattermole.
When Cattermole thunders into a tackle (cleanly) it transmits to the rest of the players and into the stands too.
While John O’Shea wears the captain’s armband, Cattermole is still a natural leader in Sunderland’s midst. The concern is that whenever Cattermole returns from injury or suspension, it takes him a couple of games to get up to speed. He’s a player who needs to be close to 100 per cent to really make his influence felt.
But when Sunderland are short on confidence and facing a winner-takes-all battle with one of their relegation rivals, then Poyet’s hand may be forced.
It’s a similar situation with Jermain Defoe, Jack Rodwell, Anthony Reveillere and perhaps Emanuele Giaccherini if any of the quartet are fit enough to start.
Certainly, Defoe and Rodwell are likely to be available, and Poyet needs the services of fresh legs and fresh minds untainted by the debacle at Bradford, even if their fitness or sharpness isn’t perfect.
It would be a shock if Poyet persisted with the orthodox 4-4-2 from last weekend. That was a one-off, and probably wouldn’t have even been used had Rodwell been fit.
There is likely to be a return to the 4-3-1-2, even though that left Sunderland too lopsided against QPR in their last Stadium of Light outing.
The key is getting in behind the Baggies after a typical Tony Pulis makeover at the Hawthorns.
West Brom will attempt to make the most of their flair on the counter-attack through former Sunderland favourite Stephane Sessegnon, Saido Berahino and the in-form Brown Ideye - a revelation after the collapse of his deadline day switch to Qatar.
With the superb delivery of Chris Brunt too, Pulis’ side will be a typical threat from set pieces.
But it is the well-drilled West Brom back four which Sunderland have to break down and force the visitors out of their shell.
Trying to go through the middle of the Baggies defence or crossing from deep is likely to prove a futile exercise.
Sunderland were unable to manage that feat when Pulis’ Crystal Palace side visited the Stadium of Light last March, with the Black Cats running out of ideas and the Eagles almost nicking it at the death.
Given Sunderland’s troubles at home this season, there has to be a fear that they will be similarly frustrated tomorrow.