Lee Cattermole: ‘There were two years when I shouldn’t have been on the pitch’

After playing for years with a torn hip, the Sunderland midfielder is back to full fitness and ready for a League One play-off final date with Charlton

It is a cool March night at the Stadio Olimpico in 2006, Middlesbrough have just eliminated Roma from Europe and Italian reporters ask their English counterparts a single question. “Lee Cattermole,” they inquire. “The new Steven Gerrard, yes?”

Fast-forward 13 years to a sunny May lunchtime in Sunderland and Cattermole smiles at the memory. “We ended up in the Uefa Cup final, losing to Sevilla, and then Steve McClaren got the England job,” he says. “That’s football, eh …”

On Sunday the 31-year-old will be at the heart of midfield as Jack Ross’s Sunderland face Charlton in the League One play-off final. It is a vital game but not exactly the sort of Wembley occasion he envisaged involvement in all those years ago in Rome. “No, not really,” he agrees. “I always felt capable of playing at the highest level. The biggest disappointment is that I’ve had a lot of injuries.

“I prefer not to look back too much but there were two years when I probably shouldn’t even have been on the pitch. Now, though, I’m pain-free, fit, really enjoying football and excited. Sunday won’t be enjoyable – play-offs are nervy – but I look forward to testing myself. This club should be in a higher division.”

For a decade Sunderland belonged to the Premier League but then came two successive relegations. The first, in 2017, arrived at the end of a campaign in which Cattermole barely featured following major hip surgery. “I didn’t realise it but I’d been playing with a torn hip for probably four years,” he says. “I was taking stupid amounts of painkillers. I struggled to walk to the toilet in the morning. I’d never felt pain like it. In the last 20 minutes of games I was thinking: ‘I’m letting the boys down here.’ That was the worst bit.”

Diagnosis proved difficult. “At one point they sent me to a psychologist to see if it was inside my head but I knew I was feeling something real,” says Cattermole. “The club looked at specialists across the world and, fortunately, in the end, I went out to Colorado and saw a guy in Richard Steadman’s clinic. I had the operation, was out for six months and now’s the best I’ve ever felt.”

Things have altered off the pitch, too. Long gone are the days when the young Teessider was banned from every pub in Stockton, received a police caution for carousing in Newcastle with his then Sunderland teammate Nicklas Bendtner and collected red cards for fun.

Cattermole is sent off by referee Anthony Taylor a Premier League game in August 2010
Cattermole is sent off by referee Anthony Taylor a Premier League game in August 2010. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

“The hardest thing for young footballers is that you start earning money and you can start copying other players,” says the former England Under-21s midfielder. “You start doing what they’re doing, buying the things they’re buying. You start pulling away from doing anything you actually enjoy. Suddenly you realise: ‘This isn’t going how I wanted it to go; this isn’t what I want.’ As I got older I started doing what I wanted. I enjoy my life now. Age helped; people change a lot between 17 and 30.”

Today Cattermole spends his spare time golfing in Northumberland rather than touring the pubs. This summer he will marry his partner, Claire, and although Wembley has necessitated the cancellation of a stag weekend in Belgium, trips to places such as Iceland have replaced lads’ holidays in Las Vegas.

“Don’t forget, football’s changed from when I started,” he says. “Players went out more. It was, let’s say, a different approach but, at Middlesbrough, Gareth Southgate tried to help me; he set a great example. He was the best captain I’ve seen. We had leaders in the dressing room, big players, but the way Gareth spoke to them was brilliant. I didn’t imagine he’d coach England but I knew he’d succeed.”

Cattermole has played for too many managers to mention but Ross impresses him: “Jack’s modern, his training’s very organised, very methodical, very detailed, but he’s also got some real old-school values so everything balances out nicely.

“Coming in last summer he had a tough dressing room to work his way through. He had to deal with a lot of people who didn’t want to be here and he handled that really well. Now everyone wants to play and we’ve got a nice dressing-room culture. Jack’s been excellent; he’ll have a great career.”

A strangely therapeutic campaign has seen Ross reacquaint Sunderland with victory and 40,000-plus Wearside crowds. “I had 10 years of being in a team that lost all the time,” says Cattermole. “It really hurt. My family’s noticed the difference this season. Winning makes you a much happier person. It helps that we’re not just putting fires out any more.”

Results apart, the entire club feels reborn as a much more holistic organisation. “Forget the love, love, love stuff, it’s winning that’s made the difference,” counters the typically quizzical midfielder. “For me Sunderland’s always had soul. Ellis Short [the previous owner] did a great job for a while, spending a lot of money, but he maybe fell out of love with it in the end.

“Maybe after Sam Allardyce left for the England job we lost a bit of connection with the fans. There was a little spell when we had no real leadership at the top but we’ve always had quality people here, lovely characters to whom Sunderland means an awful lot. The negativity came with struggles on the pitch and some poor recruitment; now, though, we’ve regrouped and, maybe, reconnected.

“Maybe we’ve finally stopped going backwards and started moving in the right direction … but Charlton’s a big game we need to win.”