Whatever the result when Spurs travel to Wigan today, it is a safe bet that the Londoners' recent revival will be more severely tested than it was during their straightforward FA Cup win over the Latics nine days ago.
Without their first-choice strike force of Amr Zaki and Emile Heskey, Wigan were always likely to struggle for a cutting edge at White Hart Lane, but it was the tame nature of their defeat that highlighted the importance of another, less heralded player to Steve Bruce's team. In the absence of Lee Cattermole, Wigan lacked much of the bite, drive and direction that had seen them win five of their previous six matches, and it is Cattermole's return, as much as that of Zaki and Heskey, which is likely to make today's match a very different proposition for Harry Redknapp's improving outfit.
Given his age – he has yet to turn 21 – the manner in which the central midfielder has imposed himself at the JJB Stadium since his £3.5 million summer move from Middlesbrough, might appear surprising. But as the Teessider himself pointed out, he has already played more than 100 games, and considered himself more than ready to be treated "like an adult".
"It's hard to leave your hometown club – you've grown up as a supporter, played at all the age levels, and got a lot of friends," said Cattermole this week. "But in a way, that was becoming a problem. I'd got into the team and played a lot of games under Steve McClaren in central midfield, my best position, but when Gareth Southgate came in he played me on the right, where I wasn't as effective. In my last season I think I only started 14 games. I just wasn't used to that. People were telling me I was only young, and to be patient, but I felt I'd proved I could play at this level."
Coming to Wigan, Cattermole noticed an immediate difference in how he was both regarded and treated. "It wasn't just the manager telling me he wanted me to play in the middle, it was little things like choosing my own team number. At Middlesbrough I'd always been given one. It sounds daft, but I just felt I wasn't being seen as a kid any more."
Nor has he played like one. While his energy might be taken for granted, those inclined to categorise Cattermole as simply a combative enforcer have been forced to revise their opinion after a series of displays in which his use of the ball has been as impressive as his tackling. Bruce has described him as a natural leader, and he has even begun to score the odd goal.
"When I arrived I felt the manager needed me to be more of a holding midfielder, letting the likes of Wilson Palacios and Antonio Valencia get forward. But recently we've played with Ryan Taylor in midfield, who's used to playing full-back, which means I can get into more advanced positions. I'd certainly like to score more. I need to keep my fitness up, learn to time my runs, and hopefully I'll get on the end of things. But that's just one part of my game that I want to improve. There are plenty of others."
One is his tackling technique, which he feels he needs torefine, a suggestion that might receive a sarcastic welcome from the likes of Newcastle's Joey Barton and Habib Beye, both of whom have recently come out of Cattermole challenges with injuries. "I would never deliberately hurt a player,"he said. "I know everybody says that, but it's true. I have to adapt, though, because every time you go to ground now you seem to pick up a booking. It's frustrating, there's still a difference in outlook between us and the foreign lads, and you still see people diving, but it's up to me to deal with it, try and stay on my feet when I go to win the ball.
"Aggression has always been part of my game, though, and always will be. When you get into a first team at 17, people try to take advantage and push you around; they're not so quick to try it on when you're established. It's a case of channelling it the right way."
There have been moments of immaturity, as there are in every young man's life. In November, an exchange of words outside a Yarm nightclub resulted in a fine and a warning from Cleveland police. Cattermole, who clearly feels he was hard done by, does not duck the question.
"It was a total misunderstanding and there was nothing malicious in it, but when footballers are involved in anything it's blown up, and people jump to conclusions. I have to learn, avoid putting myself in that position in future, and hopefully people will go back to talking about my football."
Given the way he is playing, it shouldn't take long.Reuse content