THE SCRUTINY of Lee Cattermole’s captaincy will not disappear.
Ever since Cattermole was dismissed on his first outing as Sunderland’s permanent skipper on the opening day of the 2010/11 campaign, there have been question marks over his suitability for the role.
Doubtless, Martin O’Neill will be questioned at length over the next 32 days over whether he maintain the status quo with the armband, until the former Middlesbrough man is eligible to return for Sunderland’s trip to Stoke at the end of October.
But the more pertinent question is who replaces Cattermole for three pivotal games?
A feasible chance of a first league win of the campaign against Wigan, the trip to the champions and, most telling of all, the Wear-Tyne derby.
That will doubtless concern more of O’Neill’s grey cells than whether to strip Cattermole of the captaincy.
For all Cattermole infuriated O’Neill with a mindless and needless studs-up challenge after a heavy piece of control last night, the 24-year-old remains the natural leader of this team – both on the training field and on the pitch.
While he has collected a staggering 32 yellow cards and five reds in a meagre 79 appearances in red and white, Cattermole’s dismissals have been more attributable to stupidity than any repeat offences of pole-axing opponents.
Three of the reds have been for two bookings, one for dissent after the final whistle and last night’s for an honest – if ill-thought out – attempt to win the ball back.
Reining in the daft moments of ill-discipline is the biggest challenge to Cattermole – as he realised as he lurched inconsolably from the field last night – yet they may forever be a side-effect of his style of play.
Like Kevin Ball before him, Cattermole plays on the edge. Inevitably that will continue to result in reds, but does it necessarily bring into question his position as an inspirational figure to his team-mates?
Despite the furore, Cattermole will almost certainly remain as skipper.
But losing him for three games presents a quandary in central midfield, with O’Neill able to cast his eye over the two main contenders to replace him last night.
There remains a possibility that Phil Bardsley could be potentially back for the derby and allow Craig Gardner the licence to revert back into midfield.
Yet to throw the former Manchester United man, who is still to even feature for the second string after missing all of pre-season, straight back into the fold would be the tallest of orders for the most explosive game of the campaign.
O’Neill could also revert Seb Larsson to a central midfield role, even though he is more influential on the right. But it could well be a straight fight between the two Davids – Vaughan and Meyler – to take Cattermole’s place alongside Jack Colback until the captain returns.
Both delivered an eloquent endorsement of their credentials last night, albeit they found themselves in very different circumstances.
Meyler doubtless had the tougher task of the duo after being thrust into a central defensive role with a little over 48 hours notice since being asked whether he fancied playing there on the training field.
But the 23-year-old shrugged off his lack of familiarity to stand resolutely alongside the equally solid Matt Kilgallon.
Admittedly, MK Dons never severely tested Meyler as a centre-half. For all Karl Robinson’s men have produced an impressive start to their League One campaign, they were relatively impotent as an attacking force last night.
On too many occasions for their liking, Meyler was able to collect possession midway inside his own half, under little or no pressure, and bring the ball out of defence.
The Dons struggled to get in behind Sunderland’s back-line, even more so after Cattermole’s dismissal, and were limited to efforts from range, with chief creative force Luke Chadwick getting little change out of Danny Rose.
Positionally, Meyler was understandably caught out on occasions after never being drilled in the rigours of working as a back four.
But he made up for it with his reading of the game and vigour in winning the ball back.
Meyler was never beaten in the air and covered the ground well to intercept on the deck to utterly nullify the threat of ex-Newcastle man Alan Smith as the central striker, along with replacement Ryan Lowe.
The Republic of Ireland international’s task was aided by the work-rate of those in front of him, too, who shrugged off their numerical disadvantage in midfield.
O’Neill was forced to drag Colback inside from the left to partner Vaughan in the middle after Cattermole’s dismissal, with James McClean switching from the right to the left and Stephane Sessegnon operating as the creative force from the right.
But Sunderland still looked a threat on the break and remained resolute in their team shape from a defensive aspect.
Colback and Vaughan directed the traffic and continued to work tirelessly to deny the Dons any space to spread the ball wide.
Even before Cattermole’s red mist, Vaughan made the most of his opportunity.
The Welshman looked far more reminiscent of the player who shone in the opening weeks of O’Neill’s reign, rather than the one who had lost confidence following his own goal in the FA Cup quarter-final replay.