Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Signs of a real aristo Catts

Lee Cattermole.
Lee Cattermole.
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HOW the fickle favour of public opinion can sway in the course of a meagre four months.

If supporters had been canvassed on where the then new Sunderland manager should have wielded the axe last December, several would have put forth Lee Cattermole as the sacrificial lamb.

Rightly or wrongly, Cattermole had become the scapegoat for the Steve Bruce regime.

The skipper wasn’t necessarily playing particularly badly, albeit he lacked the sheer intensity which has returned to his game under Martin O’Neill.

But when a midfielder like Cattermole fails to contribute with either goals or assists and the team continues to lose, questions are inevitably asked over the benefits of his inclusion.

Fast forward in time and the 23-year-old is heralded as the pivotal member of Sunderland’s midfield – testified by the universal chanting of the former Middlesbrough man’s name with 15 minutes to go on Saturday after he tried and failed to play through the pain of a niggling knee problem.

While acclaim for Cattermole is largely limited to Wearside, Scott Parker has enjoyed far fewer difficulties attracting plaudits since mixed stints at Chelsea and Newcastle.

Doubtless, the influx of East Enders in the national press pack proved beneficial after Parker moved to West Ham and the gushing has continued for the England captain since moving to White Hart Lane.

But in the stalest of stalemates on Saturday, where those of a defensive mindset inevitably emerged with the most credit, is Cattermole so inferior to his more decorated and more lauded fellow tough-tackling midfielder?

Admittedly the duo are not exactly cut from the same cloth.

Parker, with his shirt tucked aggressively into his shorts, strolls around languidly in front of the Spurs back four with effortless ease, while Cattermole plays on the edge – charging around the park with all-action breathless abandon.

But both are handed the remit of providing a defensive barrier of protection and, at the weekend, the duo each achieved that goal with suitable aplomb.

Cattermole was troubled in the early stages by the movement of Rafael van der Vaart as the Dutchman found space at the peak of Tottenham’s midfield during an opening 10 minutes of threat from the visitors which wasn’t to last.

Once Cattermole and Craig Gardner adjusted to the nomadic runs of van der Vaart and Luka Modric, the duo were able to squeeze the room available in front of the Sunderland area.

Tottenham were stifled and showed neither the inclination nor the inventiveness to alter either their tempo or approach to produce an opening goal which would have entirely changed the context of the encounter.

Why Spurs were so lethargic, when the race for the top four is very much still in the balance and Chelsea and Newcastle are breathing down their necks, is a question for Redknapp to ponder.

But Sunderland simply grew in strength in the middle of the park as the game wore on.

Cattermole was determined that neither Modric or van der Vaart would be able to dictate proceedings as legs began to tire.

After the break, the Teessider made a conscious effort to ruffle the feathers of Spurs’ two pivotal playmakers – charging up the pitch to press the duo on the halfway line as they dropped deeper in an attempt to find more joy.

The difficulty for Sunderland was that their own spark of creativity was similarly contained by Parker.

There were several moments when Parker looked uneasy against Stephane Sessegnon – most notably early in the first half when the Benin international’s step-over left the England man chasing shadows on the left-hand touchline.

But then how many players are comfortable when up against Sessegnon?

To Parker’s credit, the moments when Sessegnon was given time to link the play and spread the ball to the flanks were scarce, as Sunderland’s attacking threat was equally as redundant as Tottenham’s.

Where Parker could have been expected to have the edge over Cattermole, was as an attacking influence.

As a scorer and creator of goals, Parker is widely renowned as far more threatening than Cattermole, even though he is yet to break his Spurs duck.

But other than a neatly cushioned volley into the path of Benoit Assou-Ekotto in the fourth minute, which the left-back drove just wide of the far post, there was precious little invention from Parker.

He was adept at passing sideways and backwards, yet produced little of substance going forward.

What’s more, he was as guilty of sloppiness in possession as Cattermole – both of them producing horrifyingly cheap giveaways in a split-second interchange after the break.

Can Parker really justifiably be classed as more of an all-round midfielder as Cattermole, when the Sunderland man time and again breaks up play and charges forward on the counter-attack?

Perhaps, unlike Parker, Cattermole simply falls victim to the view prevalent among neutrals that he is little more than a red card waiting to happen.

Cattermole would argue that the only bad tackle of his career ironically came against Parker in March 2009 when he scythed down the then West Ham man while playing for Wigan after visiting defender Lucas Neill escaped with a yellow card for an equally poor tackle on him.

It was a challenge born of frustration and retribution and that is the side of Cattermole’s game in which he needs to take a leaf out of Parker’s book, if he is to receive the credit his hard work deserves.

Again on Saturday, he tried to take matters into his own hands after referee Chris Foy opted not to punish Spurs midfielder Sandro for a clear foul on Nicklas Bendtner, fortunately not earning a yellow as he thundered into opposition players.

It’s the same red mist which earned Cattermole an extra two-game ban for chuntering away to Mike Dean after last month’s Tyne-Wear derby.

Those aberrations aside, Cattermole’s willingness to keep playing with such aplomb while the medial ligament in his knee continues to cause him pain, only provides further praise from those ultimately paying his wages.

Certainly, when O’Neill examines his squad in the summer, no one on Wearside will want the guillotine to meet Cattermole’s neck.