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O'Neill: Cattermole can play for England
MARTIN O'Neill claims Sunderland skipper Lee Cattermole is capable of playing for England during the course of his new contract.
Cattermole ended any lingering doubt over his future yesterday when he signed a new four-year deal that commits him to the Stadium of Light until 2016.
The Black Cats captain returned from a three-match suspension at the weekend and will lead out his side against his hometown team Middlesbrough in this evening's Capital One Cup fourth-round tie on Wearside.
His disciplinary record continues to be a source of concern, but having been impressed by Cattermole's leadership qualities during his ten months as Sunderland boss, O'Neill is tipping the 24-year-old to achieve great things during his time with the club.
"Why shouldn't Lee be thinking about England," said the Northern Irishman. "He has definite ability and is still remarkably young. He has played a lot of games, but there is room for great improvement in his game.
"Having said that though, we shouldn't lose sight of what he is already very good at. Players in the modern day seem to much more quiet, but Lee is a natural leader and having a vocal leader on the pitch definitely helps. Being able to cajole other players is a great quality to have.
"He is very important to us because he keeps us going. That is a natural element of his game, although hand in hand with that, his discipline aspect has to improve.
"I am very pleased to have all this sorted now. This was his final year, so with everything out of the way, he can now go and concentrate on a number of issues in his game. There was never any question of me not wanting him to stay, it was just a case of sorting a few things out and that has been ongoing for a number of weeks."
Discussions over a new deal began in the summer, with Cattermole always adamant that he did not want to leave Sunderland, having joined the club in a £6m move from Wigan in August 2009.
The Stockton-born midfielder has made 80 appearances for the Black Cats, and while his tally of five red cards has been well documented, he remains an integral part of the club's preferred midfield formation.
His combative approach provides some much-needed protection for the defenders behind him, and having returned to the North-East in the hope of winning trophies and helping push Sunderland into Europe, he admits he would have been devastated had he been forced to head for the exit door next summer.
"The gaffer made it clear that he wanted to keep me and now we've managed to get it done," said Cattermole. "Maybe the sending off (at MK Dons) didn't help in all of that, but we've managed to get it sorted.
"It's definitely the best place for me, and I would have been gutted if I had left at the end of this year because I think I have more to offer. Could we make the top eight and qualify for Europe over the course of the deal? That's everybody's aim.
"Everybody outside the top four will think they have a chance of achieving that and we're no different. If you have a good season, anything is possible. You just have to look at Newcastle last season to see that. We've got a great manager and great players - everything is really positive."
Sunderland's best chance of qualifying for Europe this season could well come in the Capital One Cup, with the winners of tonight's game claiming a place in the quarter-finals.
The Black Cats made the last eight of the FA Cup last season, only to lose at home to Everton in a replay, and while other managers might decry the importance of the League Cup, O'Neill is happy to place it close to the top of his list of priorities.
"At this stage of our development, I think we have to give the competition the respect it deserves," he said. "I have always done that anyway. I can understand when big teams who are heavily involved in European football, like say Arsenal, give a chance to youngsters, but from our viewpoint, I am sure the club would want us to try and do our best in the competition."
Nevertheless, O'Neill will be forced into a handful of changes this evening, with Danny Rose, Seb Larsson and Craig Gardner all struggling with minor injuries.
The trio are unlikely to be risked, so Jack Colback is set to start at left-back with Phil Bardsley in the opposite full-back berth. Stephane Sessegnon will return after missing Saturday's goalless draw at Stoke, but O'Neill is still to decide whether to start with Steven Fletcher or Louis Saha ahead of the Benin international.