SUNDERLAND are preparing to step up contract talks with Lee Cattermole as they look to keep the skipper on Wearside through his peak years.
The 24-year-old is in the last 12 months of the three-year deal he signed in 2009 when Steve Bruce bought him from Wigan – and if no new contract is agreed, Cattermole will be able to leave for nothing next summer.
That’s something the club is desperate to avoid, with Cattermole an important part of manager Martin O’Neill’s plans.
O’Neill said: “Cattermole has been excellent since I came to the football club – and he may well have been before, I don’t know about that.
“He’s 24 and he’s the captain of the side. Sometimes he needs to keep his discipline better because over the course of the year I expect he’ll pick up a couple of silly bookings.
“I don’t want to build him up too much though – particularly as he has a contract to sign here!”
Three other members of the first-team squad are also in the last year of their contracts – Fraizer Campbell, Titus Bramble and Matt Kilgallon.
But Cattermole, who O’Neill has talked about as a potential England player, is the manager’s top priority.
The Teessider has had his critics and was in trouble on and off the pitch last season but O’Neill has been won over by what he has seen from the midfielder.
He has also kept the captaincy – with the manager recognising him as a natural leader.
O’Neill was incredibly busy during the last couple of weeks of the transfer window but was still able to conclude a deal with Stephane Sessegnon, securing the Benin international’s long-term future at the Stadium of Light.
And now that the window has closed, he can turn his full attention to tying down Cattermole long-term.
Cattermole, himself, is expected to be receptive to the idea of staying on Wearside.
He has spoken regularly of his pride at being handed the captain’s armband and as well a developing an affinity with the club.
The situations surrounding Campbell, Bramble and Kilgallon are less clear.
This is undoubtedly a big season for Campbell, who will have to show Sunderland that the two cruciate ligament injuries that sidelined him for 17 months have not taken their toll on him.
The former Manchester United frontman made a successful return to the first team at the end of January but his progress since then has not been without hiccups.
That said, the 25-year-old enjoyed a decent pre-season and O’Neill will give him the chance to perform in the Premier League.
The early days of the campaign have seen him selected ahead of Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-won but he will need to earn a contract extension through his performances in the months ahead – something which also applies to centre-halves Bramble and Kilgallon.
They have both been good squad members and their position was strengthened over the summer by Michael Turner’s departure to Norwich and Wes Brown’s ongoing fitness problems.
It means both players are likely to enjoy some first-team action and get the chance to prove they should remain part of the manager’s plans.