Why Lee Cattermole leaves with his held high after ten remarkable years at Sunderland
Lee Cattermole is striding off the pitch and an AFC Wimbledon fan heads over for a word.
It’s not the first of the afternoon.
He’s had plenty to say over 90 minutes and he wants just one or two more.
“You’re still in League One,” or something to that affect.
Cattermole is unmoved and wanders off down the tunnel with a smirk that tells you, actually, he’s rather enjoying all of this. So early in the season, it still seems a little absurd that he’s here at the Cherry Red Records stadium in the first place.
Wimbledon fans, like many would throughout the season, took a sort of delight in seeing Cattermole slugging it out in the third tier.
For much of the summer before, it seemed certain that he would have moved on and in truth there were few who would have said it wasn’t for the best. This was the surreal afternoon that showed there would be another chapter in this rollercoaster journey, that Cattermole had plenty more to give.
We should have known that it would be the case. No one did revival and reinvention quite like this midfielder on Wearside. Deep-lying pivot for Poyet, box-to-box terrier for Bruce. Outcast under Di Canio, pivotal under just about everyone else.
Whatever preconception each arriving manager had about Cattermole, whatever philosophy they held dear, they always ended up with the 31-year-old in the engine room.
It was the same for Ross and his careful management was vindicated in that moment of glorious catharsis in front of the John Green stand, Cattermole firing a crisp volley at the back post into the bottom corner.
Sunderland fans piled onto the dugout in front of them, creating a din defeaning even on the opposite side of the ground.
Some of the new staff and players looked amusingly stunned at that moment, as if the size and the intensity of the club had dawned on them. Cattermole had worn at it all for nine years.
The highs and lows so dramatic that they’re worth dwelling on, just for a moment.
A Wembley final, dizzying derby wins one after the other, the heaviest derby defeat in years.
Two relegations and twice as many great escapes.
That tumble through the divisions hurt badly, as did the perception that Cattermole and a handful of other senior players were if not to blame then certainly a significant factor.
Which is why those Wimbledon goals and the further five that followed in the season were so satisfying.
Just a few of weeks on from that August afternoon, he was influential again as Sunderland ground out a crucial win away at Bradford City, holding on for the three points despite playing the final third of the game with ten men.
He couldn’t claim a goal this time, Josh Maja diverting his volley goalward with a wonderful flick of the chest, but his contribution was major. At the final whistle the travelling support roared his name.
His post-match comments said so much about him, what had gone before, and how he saw the game.
Always passionate, always engaging.
“I've been through that much but as long as you go to work each day and give your all, I can look in the mirror and sleep at night,” he said.
“I'll try and do the talking on the pitch, and you see the response from the fans there.
"I could have left the club in different circumstances but I decided I wanted to stay, I didn't want to go out on such a bad note after nine years.
“I was always determined to play well, we had a good pre-season, the staff and the players we have brought in have been different class. The lads we have brought in are what we've needed as a club. Some of the signings we made [in the past], never Sunderland players, never what the fans demand.
"Look at the end of there, three or four lads, 96th minute, ratting about people, that's what this club is about. We'll get better and keep going.
"I didn't think we'd drop out of the Premier League after all those survivals we had. It hurts you as a player when you're giving everything on the pitch and then you're seeing some of the recruitment over the years, you get some stick sometimes and you look at how many players have come here and not made any impact on the club.
“I'm proud of what I've done here, I'll keep doing what I do.”
That he did, so nearly helping Sunderland over the line in two more Wembley finals.
Cattermole backs himself to the hilt and will be determined to return to a high level, but it was clear on that afternoon and so many others just how much it meant to be part of a close, professional, grounded environment.
If the way the season ended was utterly draining, then that campaign and that effort he gave means he leaves the club with few ill-wishers.
His departure feels truly like the end of an era at Sunderland that was often exhilarating, often infurtiating, and always dizzyingly frenetic.
Through it all Cattermole never hid and never shied away from the challenge.
He played through good form and bad, often in chronic pain with a hip problem that tooks years to diagnose.
He would have done so again, if needed.
But a fresh start feels right, for the player and the club.
He has a lot still to give and those volleys at Wimbledon served as a timely reminder that the caricature so many in the wider game hold has always been misplaced.
This was a midfielder who could play, with genuine technical ability.
He still can, and there will be plenty of suitors.
So often typecast as a one-dimensional yellow-card machine, most who work with Cattermole speak of his sharp football brain, his desire to always learn and deepen that understanding.
There are plenty more chapters for Lee Cattermole, and if we have learned anything, it is that he will find a way to make an impact wherever he goes.