CRAIG Gardner insists Sunderland’s players are rallying around Lee Cattermole, despite the skipper putting their Capital One Cup bid in jeopardy.
Sunderland shrugged off the first-half dismissal of Cattermole to book their place in the last 16 of the cup at League One MK Dons last night after stunning goals from Gardner and James McClean ensured the Black Cats defied their numerical disadvantage.
But it was Cattermole’s fifth red card in 79 Sunderland appearances which overshadowed proceedings, with the resulting three-game ban ruling the 24-year-old out of next month’s Wear-Tyne derby.
Boss Martin O’Neill branded the former Middlesbrough man as “senseless” and “reckless” for his studs-up challenge on MK Dons right-back Adam Chicksen after the midfielder lost possession from a driving forward run and lunged in to win the ball back.
But right-back Gardner has backed Cattermole’s captaincy and says Sunderland’s players will ensure he is brought out of the doldrums while he is suspended.
Gardner told the Echo: “I feel sorry for Catts because he’s been brilliant all season.
“His attitude in training and on the pitch is spot on. He’s a true leader and I just feel sorry for him.
“He’s the last person in the world who wants to get sent off.
“He was rock bottom in the dressing room afterwards and everyone was trying to pick him up. Hopefully we’ll get him back in the team.
“From where I was standing at right-back, it didn’t look too bad. But I could be wrong. He was the other side of the pitch.
“We’ve got to get behind him and lift him up.”
Sunderland remained resolute defensively after Cattermole’s 31st-minute dismissal and broke the deadlock when Gardner let fly with a free-kick from 25 yards which swerved in the air and left Dons stopper Ian McLoughlin stationary.
They sealed victory after a superb individual effort from McClean with 10 minutes to go, securing a place in the fourth round draw which will be made after Newcastle’s trip to Manchester United tonight.
“A few of the lads said afterwards it was better than my goal at Wigan last season,” said Gardner. “Killa (Matt Kilgallon) said that and he was in the wall in both games.
“It was an important time to score a goal.
“But the lads were brilliant once Catts went off. We worked hard and got the result we wanted.
“It’s definitely a competition we think we can do well in and that’s what the gaffer said before kick-off last night, to make sure we didn’t go out.
“We were down to 10 men, but, at half-time, he said the same thing.
“My goal came at the right time and after that we were comfortable.”