FOR the last ten years, Lee Cattermole has headed off on holiday as soon as the football season has come to an end. But for the last ten years, the Sunderland midfielder has peeled away from the pool over the Bank Holiday weekend to pitch himself in front of the television. Such is the power of the play-offs.

“Every summer of my career, I’ve watched these games on holiday,” said Cattermole. “You look at the excitement of it all and think, ‘Yeah, I’d love a bit of that’. But then you look at the teams that get beat, after going through the whole of the season, and think, ‘That’s really tough’.

“You can go through your career without ever getting an opportunity to play in games like these. You’ve got the opportunity, on the last day of the season, to go into the league above. It’s incredible really.”

As one door closes, so another one opens wide. Missing out on automatic promotion was a massive disappointment for all involved at the Stadium of Light, but there has been no sulking in the wake of last weekend’s defeat at Southend. Instead, Jack Ross and his players have accentuated the positive of still having a chance to make it out of League One. Finishing in the top two would have been great; winning promotion at Wembley, two months after the heartbreak of the Checkatrade Trophy final, would be an even more enjoyable experience.

It is the same upbeat attitude that has enabled Cattermole to slip so successfully into life in the third tier, even though, for more than a decade, he grew accustomed to dining at football’s top table.

Prior to last season, he had never played outside the Premier League, but rather than bemoaning Sunderland’s slide down the divisions, he has accepted his role in the demise and redoubled his efforts to try to aid the recovery mission.

It is an attitude that has coursed through the club, with Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and Ross all adamant that Sunderland should not regard themselves as being above League One.

There has been a humility to Sunderland’s conduct this season, as well as a sense of rebirth. Having joined the Black Cats at the start of the Steve Bruce era, Cattermole could fill an entire newspaper trawling through the wreckage of what has gone wrong in the last decade. Instead, he would rather focus on the positives that have emerged in the last nine months.

“I think people have got their club back,” said the Stockton-born midfielder. “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 in to 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. It’s exciting to look to the future, and that hasn’t always been the case.”

Cattermole is happy to draw a line under the past, although he claims it is important to acknowledge where Sunderland found themselves at the start of the season. When he reported back for pre-season training last summer, the 31-year-old was one of just nine senior players on the Black Cats’ books. Having only been appointed at the end of May, Ross had to assemble a squad in the space of a couple of months, so while failing to finish in the top two was a blow, Cattermole feels it would be harsh to categorise it as an underachievement.

“The manager had his hands tied with what he could get,” he said. “At the start it was probably just a case of whatever he could get because we were so light on numbers it was unbelievable. When we went over to Portugal for pre-season, you were looking around thinking, ‘How are we meant to compete?’

“(Lynden) 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, but we were miles off it at the start of the season.”

Cattermole’s personal form has been a key factor in Sunderland’s ability to compete for promotion, not least in terms of his goalscoring record. Prior to this season, the midfielder had never scored at the Stadium of Light, but his header at Fleetwood earlier this month made it seven goals for the campaign. Having missed the decisive penalty against Portsmouth at Wembley last month, he would understandably love to make it eight tonight.

“Even in the Championship last year, I was making runs and thinking, ‘It’s not as hard to get to the other side of your midfielder as it was in the Premier League’,” he said. “This season, I’ve managed to get into good areas.

“It’s something I could do more, but we’ve been playing with two sitting players and one in front so it’s quite hard to keep getting in the box. It’s something I think I’m capable of doing though, and hopefully you’ll see that in these next two games.”