MARTIN O'NEILL is ready to run the risk of losing Lee Cattermole for next weekend's Tyne-Wear derby amid fears the Sunderland captain could pick up a tenth booking of the season this afternoon.
Cattermole picked up his ninth yellow card in the final stages of the FA Cup fifth round win over Arsenal when he made an unnecessary challenge on Tomas Rosicky from behind.
Referee Howard Webb's decision to put his name in the book means the Sunderland skipper must now try to avoid a further caution in the next six weeks to steer clear of a second suspension of the season.
Having struggled to steer clear of bookings in the past, it would seem inevitable Cattermole will reach double figures before the first Sunday in April, when previous yellow cards will be discounted.
And with the trip to Newcastle United pencilled in for eight days time, O'Neill has had to consider the possibility of leaving the former Middlesbrough man out of the team at The Hawthorns.
But the Sunderland manager, well aware of the impressive nature of the player's performances since he took over from Steve Bruce in early December, finds it difficult to weigh one Premier League fixture up against another, regardless of local rivalries.
"Prioritise? I have given it a little thought and tried to dismiss it, but it is important to have a talk with him. Knowing him he will want to play games and get on with it," said O'Neill.
The Sunderland manager has been hugely impressed by Cattermole's displays in the centre of midfield in the last few months, but does think the Teessider could do more to prevent the number of bookings he picks up.
O'Neill said: "Lee can do better over the course of time, but we need to get to the stage where we are not coming to this point every season fearful he has a two match ban hanging over him half way through February.
"That is something I haven't had a chance to speak to him about. I have looked at it but not talked about it and that is something he can help himself with.
"I do think referees are more inclined to book him by reputation. I am not giving him the go ahead to keep doing it, or totally on his side, but I think he has genuinely tried to change his overall game. He is doing very well. But Lee could pick a booking up coming out of the bath."
Despite the fact David Vaughan - included in the Wales squad next week - has returned to training this week after an ankle problem, O'Neill was leaning towards playing Cattermole at West Brom.
He is, though, unlikely to thrust Nicklas Bendtner straight back in to Premier League action. The Danish striker has frustrated his boss with some of his off-the-field behaviour, but he accepts he has a striker capable of making a difference.
Bendtner, 23, has not played since fracturing his cheekbone in the win over Swansea on January 21 and, after being given plenty of recuperation time, he could be on the bench to wear a mask today.
Fraizer Campbell's form, which has earned an England call-up for Wednesday's friendly with Holland, has lessened the need for the Denmark international to make an immediate return.
But O'Neill does hope the increased competition will help to bring the best out of Bendtner, who is likely to be sold by Arsenal when his loan deal at the Stadium of Light comes to an end in the summer.
"Nicklas is his own man and he has plenty of self confidence, nothing wrong with that, and he will feel he is capable of getting into the team and performing, no matter what has been happening in his absence," said O'Neill.
"We now have competition that I hadn't personally foreseen some time ago, so that is encouraging. I try to be like Nicklas myself, I couldn't carry it off as well! Seriously, he wants to play, there is a bit of front, no question about that, but he wants to play. He has big games coming up at the end of the season (Euro2012) so he will want to be in good form."
It was announced on Monday that Niall Quinn, the club's former chairman, player and manager, has stepped down from his role as ambassador and left the club.
And O'Neill said: "He was influential in me coming here, he and the owner brought me here so I was particularly disappointed. He will never be forgotten, I felt he was Mr Sunderland.
"I will miss things like when he would come in and have a coffee. He was always welcome and he didn't bother you. He has not been involved as much as I thought and I will miss his involvement, even if it was only once a week. I am just disappointed that he had gone."