CATS, it is commonly perceived, have nine lives. The question Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill must ponder, in the wake of his side's Capital One Cup victory at MK Dons on Tuesday night, is
whether Catts should be afforded similar longevity.
Sent off for the fifth time in his Sunderland career, and the seventh overall even though he is yet to turn 25, Lee Cattermole finds his position as
both skipper and member of the Black Cats' starting XI up for debate.
How long can his recklessness and senselessness – words that were delivered by O'Neill himself – be tolerated?
Do his strengths as a player and leader provide adequate compensation for a stubborn indisciplined streak that shows no sign of being addressed? Or is it time to decide that enough is enough and
tolerate Cattermole's untamed nature no longer?
The case for the prosecution was clear for all to see at Stadium MK. Clearly frustrated at having lost possession in the centre-circle, Cattermole lunged desperately into a challenge he had little
or no chance of winning.
With a numbing inevitability, his leap brought contact with Adam Chicksen rather than the ball, and referee Stuart Atwell immediately reached into his pocket to brandish red.
It was the unnecessary nature of it all that rankled most, as Cattermole would have achieved little had he won the tackle other than redressing the sense of lost pride he appeared to experience as
he ceded possession.
There was no justification for the lunge, even if it could hardly be described as malicious, but then this is a player who saw red in the aftermath of a Tyne-Wear derby when most of the Newcastle
players were already off the pitch.
“It's bad enough that he got sent off, but there's also the consequences to think about because we'll miss him,” said O'Neill. “I think he's got off to a very good start this season, but something
like this knocks you back, it has to. It's three games and you can't afford it. I've enough problems with injuries, so when another one comes along and it's self-inflicted, it's ridiculous.”
O'Neill's frustration at Cattermole's actions is understandable, yet he is hardly the first Sunderland manager to be left tearing his hair out at the Teessider's indiscretions.
Steve Bruce gradually grew tired of defending Cattermole's conduct, and briefly handed John O'Shea the captain's armband when he left his midfield
lieutenant out of the side at the start of last season.
O'Neill could have stripped Cattermole of the captaincy again when he was appointed, let alone when the 24-year-old accepted a conditional caution for damaging five vehicles in April, but instead
opted to throw his weight behind the midfielder.
And that is why for all of O'Neill's understandable anger on Tuesday, it is hard to see too much changing in the short term.
In short, if you value the good in Cattermole's play, then you have to be willing to accept some of the bad. The well-worn managerial comment that 'if you try to take some of the edge off a player
like Cattermole, you take away all of his strengths' is patently nonsense. If it wasn't, why would there be any need for training or coaching?
But so many of Cattermole's qualities are related to passion, aggression and playing on the edge that it is almost inevitable that he will cross the boundary of acceptability from time to time.
On Saturday, the midfielder made two crunching challenges in the first half of Sunderland's 1-1 draw with West Ham. Both were clean, committed challenges that won possession, confirmed the Black
Cats' defensive intent and energised players and away fans alike. Yet had either been fractionally mistimed, they could have resulted in a straight red card as well.
O'Neill has enthused about Cattermole's motivational qualities on a number of occasions this season, and crucially the rest of the Sunderland squad appear to be equally enthusiastic about his role
in the side.
“Everyone who knows Lee Cattermole knows that he plays with his heart on his sleeve,” said David Meyler. “It was just a ball that he went for and thought he could win. The referee decided it was a
red card and I'm sure the club will look back on it.
“But Lee is gutted himself because he always wants to do everything he can to help the team. Everyone respects that. It's done now and there's nothing that anyone can do. It's not something we'll
spend too long thinking about as players.”
O'Neill will probably ponder it a little longer, but it will be a major surprise if he does not eventually come to broadly the same conclusion.
Yes, Cattermole jeopardised Sunderland's progress to the Capital One Cup fourth round. Yes, he will be missed in forthcoming matches against Wigan, Manchester City and, most crucially of all,
But once he returns, he will influence as many games, if not more, in a positive manner. The equation remains in Cattermole's favour, even if the sums are becoming more complicated.