LEE Cattermole insists Sunderland's season is not over despite the crushing disappointment of Tuesday's FA Cup defeat to Everton.
The Black Cats' dreams of a Wembley semi-final disappeared when David Moyes' side secured a deserved 2-0 win on Wearside, and the remaining eight games of the Premier League campaign threaten to be a complete non-event.
Unlike the vast majority of sides in the league, Sunderland appear to have little to play for between now and the middle of May.
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They are 15 points clear of the drop zone, and therefore exceptionally unlikely to be relegated, but also ten points adrift of sixth position, which is the minimum requirement for a possible European place.
Nevertheless, Cattermole dismisses suggestions that his team-mates might as well begin their summer holidays early, insisting there are still targets to be achieved despite this week's setback.
On Saturday they will attempt to become the first side to take any league points from Manchester City's Etihad Stadium this season, while in the longer term there is a determination to improve on last season's tenth-placed finish.
“When Martin O'Neill took over, if you'd said we had a chance of eighth, ninth or tenth position, we would have grabbed it,” said Cattermole, who returned from a four-match suspension to reclaim his place in the starting line-up on Tuesday. “We've got to push on now, and a top-half finish would show the club is going in the right direction.
“There's been a buzz about the club with the FA Cup, and if we'd got to Wembley for the semi-final it would have been great. But that might have made us take our eye off the ball in the league.
“We've got to go out there and fight for every point available, and we'll see how well we do. That starts on Saturday at Manchester City. We beat them at home and played brilliantly, so if we can go there and be the first team to get a point off them it would be brilliant.”
As skipper, Cattermole has a duty to accentuate the positive, but while there was an inevitable sense of disappointment in the dressing room two days ago, it was also possible to detect a widespread desire not to diminish the progress that has undoubtedly been made in the last three-and-a-half months.
When O'Neill replaced Steve Bruce, Sunderland were languishing in 17th position in the table and a frantic battle against relegation seemed likely.
Reaching the 40-point mark before the end of March is a notable achievement, and one defeat, no matter how dispiriting, is not about to undo the good work that has already been carried out.
“All the lads have had defeats,” said Cattermole. “It happens to every club and to every player – that's why you're footballers. It makes you hungry – you show some fight and respond to it.
“You have to show some fight in your belly and try to improve. There will be a lot of hard work over the next seven or eight weeks, and if we can finish above where we did last season, we'll have kicked on from then.”
And if anyone knows about responding to adversity it is surely Cattermole, a player who has already overcome more than his fair share of obstacles this season.
In the early weeks of the campaign, he had to deal with the disappointment of being dropped for back-to-back matches against Stoke and Norwich, a decision that raised immediate questions about his future as captain following the summer arrival of the experienced John O'Shea.
He fought his way back into the team, but suffered an untimely injury that meant he was unavailable for O'Neill's first two matches as manager.
Would he win back his place? Yes. But would he keep it after he was senselessly dismissed in the aftermath of this month's 1-1 draw with Newcastle, an offence that helped contribute to a four-match ban after he also received his tenth yellow card of the season?
O'Neill provided his answer on Tuesday, and for all that Cattermole's disciplinary record continues to frustrate, he is likely to be a permanent fixture in Sunderland's first team for many years to come.
“What happened at Newcastle is something you've got to learn from,” said the 24-year-old. “I spoke to the manager and it's something to learn from going forward.
“But you've got to put things in perspective. I think Robin van Persie is on eight bookings and if you count the number of tackles I make compared to him, I make a lot of tackles for the team. I win a lot of ball back, so I will get booked.
“If I can cut out the silly ones I get at times, I'll learn from it. I'll do my best not to let them add up.”