MARTIN O’Neill is preparing for life without Lee Cattermole between now and the end of the season.
The injured Black Cats’ skipper is still hoping to return to Sunderland’s starting line-up soon to boost the club’s Premier League survival hopes.
But O’Neill says that as he contemplates the final eight games of Sunderland’s season, he cannot rely on the captain’s slim hope of recovering from a stubborn knee injury.
The influential Cattermole has been plagued by injury problems this season, originally twisting his knee in the 0-0 draw with QPR in November before making his first start after that in the 1-0 defeat to Arsenal in February, only to damage the other knee before half-time.
Initial recovery plans failed to bear fruit and the 24-year-old – restricted to just 10 games this season – has now had an injection and rest from the start of the month, hoping that the knee problem will right itself by the end.
O’Neill though says that if Cattermole does return before the end of the season, it will be a bonus.
He said: “Lee has a few more days to go after having had the injection.
“The specialist told him not to do a great deal, and while he is obviously working with the physiotherapist, he is not doing anything that will risk damaging his knee.
“We hope for the best, but to me, if he comes back this season, then that would be a bonus, and an unexpected bonus.
“We may have to cope without him.
“And even if he does successfully come back from the injury, he will still be nowhere near match fit, as things stand.”
It is another season where Sunderland have seen too little of Cattermole on the pitch, and O’Neill admits that his absence has been keenly felt in the current campaign.
“We have had to do without him pretty much all season,” the manager acknowledged.
“He has definitely been a loss to us, no question about that.
“We have missed that drive, the things that he would give us, but we have had to make do without it.”
The prospect of Sunderland finishing the remainder of the campaign without Cattermole is a depressing one, but O’Neill is placing faith in the fact that the season has been so tough for his players generally, that the current adversity will not affect them.
“We’ve missed Lee all season,” he said.
“We’ve had different combinations in midfield, we’ve had to play midfield players at full-back – all those type of things which eventually get lost in the mix.
“It has been a tough old season.
“It has been tough since the very first day down at the Emirates Stadium and that’s just the way it has been.
“But I think because we’ve been uncomfortably placed, the players are used to that, and should be able to rise to the occasion in these key games ahead.”