Lee Cattermole opens up on Sunderland's season, missing out on the top two and has emphatic message ahead of the play-offs

Lee Cattermole believes Sunderland still have a strong chance of going up this season
Lee Cattermole believes Sunderland still have a strong chance of going up this season
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Lee Cattermole is, as ever, clear and to the point.

If Sunderland don’t go up, he will view it as a failure.

The challenge now for the Black Cats is to recharge and reset after a deflating end to the season, back-to-back defeats and two poor flat performances, an excellent first half at Fleetwood aside.

Momentum is unquestionably with Charlton Athletic.

Sunderland face a challenging semi final against an opponent they could hardly be more familiar with, their fate in the balance.

It has been a long, punishing campaign, and though Wearside has felt a little flat in recent days, Cattermole is bullish.

“I think it would be harsh to say we’ve underachieved [in missing out on automatic],” he said.

“With the change in the club, from the end of last season to where we are now, I think we’ve come a long way. You can see the atmosphere, every game, every away ground we’ve been to, it’s been like a cup competition for us every game, but we’ve handled it.

“We’ve brought a lot of new players in, new staff, new ownership, almost everything you can change at a football club, we’ve done that this year,” he added.

“We’re now entering the final period of the season. It’s a new competition, so we need to freshen things up again and go again.

“We’ve got two games, and then hopefully another trip to Wembley.

“In two or three weeks’ time, we’ll find out whether it’s been a failure this season or not. If we don’t go up, I’ll be viewing it as a failure, but I still think we’ve got a strong chance of doing that.”

Cattermole was there at the very start, when the group got back together after back-to-back relegations.

There weren’t many of them.

Sunderland flew out to Portugal for a pre-season camp with a threadbare squad, and Jack Ross even admitting that the future of plenty was uncertain.

So even if fifth represents a disappointing end to the regular season, that context is important.

“I think the manager had his hands tied with what he could get,” Cattermole said.

“We were so light on numbers it was unbelievable. When we went over to Portugal for pre-season you were looking around think, ‘How are we meant to compete?’

“Goochy’s goal [against Charlton Athletic] just set us all off and suddenly there was a bit of belief. Now we’re complaining because we didn’t win the league. We were miles off it at the start of the season.”

In that first half an hour against Lee Bowyer’s side Sunderland were rocking.

Relentless work to rebuild a connection off the pitch had drawn in a big crowd and eventually they were given an exhilarating ending.

From there the Black Cats kicked on. The last two games have been all the more frustrating given how hard Sunderland had worked and how resilient they had been in getting into a position where automatic promotion was a distinct possibility.

So for Cattermole there are two key lessons.

One, Sunderland have to toughen up from those defeats but two, they should have no fear going into the play-offs.

It has been a season where for the most part, it has felt like Sunderland has its club back.

“I hope the fans think because it feels like that inside the building as well,” Cattermole said.

“It’s been a much, much more enjoyable season. That’s to do with the feel around the place, the change, and how far we’ve come in this short space of time.

“We’re getting big crowds, we’re a big football club, so you’re going to be disappointed when you see the likes of Luton getting promoted and not us, but they’re a settled team who have won promotion the year before.

“They’re on the way up, on the rise. They’re a confident group, we were the total opposite of that at the start of the season. But we’re pulling and we’re having a right go.

“If we go and score first against Portsmouth on Saturday night, it’s going to be absolutely rocking and the fans are going to be loving every minute of it. Football’s a funny game.

“For me, we just have to toughen up a little bit on the pitch,” he added.

“I think we’ve gone a little bit soft in the last few weeks. I think the equaliser at Peterborough really affected us. If we’d have won that, I’d have really fancied us to go on and win the next couple as well.

“We’ve played okay in games, but the last couple of results against Fleetwood and Southend have been poor. That’s not acceptable. From where we’ve been this season, that’s a massive backward step. Let’s hope that was just people with half an eye on the play-offs.

“We’re in the play-offs now, but I believe we’re a team no one wants. Over two legs, you’ve got to fancy us. Yes, we’ve been beaten by Portsmouth, but once was on penalties and the other team, we went down to ten men. I felt in all three games, we were more than capable of going and beating them.”

Even if it is the third tier, Sunderland’s squad still have a chance to write a unique chapter in the club’s history.

It’s a prospect that visibly excited Cattermole.

“Being successful, that’s the important thing,” he said.

“People can’t take anything away from us, we’ve been to a Checkatrade final and hopefully we’ll go back to Wembley. We’re in League One, but that’s where the club is at.

“I don’t think we’ve got a Premier League team down there, trying to get out of this division, I think with what we’ve done in the summer, if you look at what we’ve got on the pitch, then we are a League One side. But I think we’ve competed really well this season.

“We’ve got lads that have come out of relegated sides, and at the start of the season, it was a new challenge for everybody. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past, or where you’ve been or achieved at other clubs in your career, it was a big challenge this year,” he added.

“We’ve got to be really happy with where we’re at. I know it was disappointing not to get the automatic, but we’ve probably fallen a bit shy of that. The things that have let us down, not getting as many clean sheets as we would have liked, we can maybe address that now before Saturday.”

The last two home games in particular offer promise.

Doncaster Rovers comfortably beaten, and it ought to have been the same with Portsmouth, Sunderland excellent but denied by an exceptional performance from Craig MacGillivray.

Both matches played out in a superb atmosphere and in front of a bumper crowd.

“The lads can’t believe what they’re playing in front of,” Cattermole said.

“There’s not many players have played in front of crowds like that and we should never forget that. We should use it as a strength going into Saturday. But it also gives other [opposition] players a lift as well, so it’s trying to work with it.

“I think as a whole we’ve handled it really well because that was a worry at the start of the season, how the lads are going to handle playing at home because it had been a real tense place to play.

“That mindset and the atmosphere is changing again, it’s a more enjoyable place to play football,” he added.

“I think people have got their club back. It looks that way.

“The travelling fans, the home fans, the atmosphere has been brilliant.

“The things we’re doing around the stadium with the flags, just having a go as a club. It looks like you’re trying to progress and get better as a club. It’s not like we’re just going to hang in, fight, and see how long we can hang in for.

“I think the lads we’ve got here have bought into what we’re trying to do. We’re at the right end of the table and it’ll be interesting if we can do the business and get over the line to see what happens next.”

Of course, that reconnection will be consolation at best, should Sunderland fail to get over the line.

For now, though, it gives Cattermole real hope of an uplifting end to the season.

“One hundred per cent [it could be the best way to up].

“Every summer of my career I’ve watched these games on holiday, but you look at the other teams and think, ‘It’s tough, that.’

“But let’s just have a right go and go and enjoy it. We shouldn’t be nervous or worried or anxious about what’s coming and are we going to go up or not. That’s not going to get us anything positive or any good performances. Each man just needs to focus on his job.

“The more seven or eight out of tens in your team, you’re going to be a better side. We’ve got a fit squad, Duncan’s not far away, that could give us a big lift, maybe in the second leg.

“I try not to think too much about the noise going around the game.

“Everyone gets a bit worried, the fans get a bit disappointed because they’re worried as well, but we need to make sure when we’re on the pitch we show the fans we’re in control of the game. They can sit there, watch their team play and think, ‘They’re representing us and we trust them to get the result.’