Cattermole seeks to reward Bruce's faith by leading fight against the drop

The combative Sunderland captain will be let off the leash against former side Wigan today despite his tendency for 'stupid' bookings

All over the north-east of England it was sunglasses, shorts and ice cream weather – everywhere except the Wearside coast. There was no sun in Sunderland. It was engulfed by sea fret.

At the training ground on the edge of the city, Steve Bruce was pondering the fretful situation into which his Sunderland side have stumbled since late January. Just one point from nine games has left them needing to dig in their claws to make sure their Premier League status is not on the line come 22 May.

"You have to show your teeth and come out fighting," the Sunderland manager said, by way of a rallying call ahead of the visit of his former club, the in-form but still imperilled Wigan Athletic, to the Stadium of Light this afternoon. "You have to come out fighting and hope that the people around you have the same kind of bollocks that you do."

If nothing else, the player who will lead Bruce's side into battle this afternoon can be relied upon to show such combative qualities. Nobody has ever accused Lee Cattermole of being short of cojones. It is the modus operandi of the 23-year-old midfield enforcer to come out fighting. The trouble is he often struggles to keep his warrior spirit in check.

Against West Bromwich a fortnight ago, Cattermole set the tone for a much improved first-half team performance with a series of snappy challenges – firm but perfectly fair. After picking up what Bruce called "a stupid yellow card" though the Sunderland captain had to back off in the second half and the rest of the team stepped off the pace with him as they lost 3-2.

In the past three seasons – one with Wigan, two with Sunderland – Cattermole has collected 28 yellow cards and five reds. After he was sent off in the 1-1 draw at Wigan in September even Bruce, who signed him for the Latics from Middlesbrough and took him with him to Wearside in the summer of 2009, was somewhat exasperated with the tough-tackling Teessider.

"He didn't speak to me for about 10 days, other than to say hello," Cattermole recalled. "People were putting it out there that I might have lost the armband but the manager stuck by me. It was two weeks before I could play again and he pulled me to one side before that game and said, 'You've got nothing to prove – go out and play your normal game.'

"I'll never change the way I play. It's got me where I am now and if I didn't play that way the manager wouldn't have bought me and made me captain."

Like many of the Sunderland squad this season, Cattermole has also had to contend with a prolonged spell of injury. According to his manager, though, in the 2-0 defeat at Birmingham last week: "It was the old Lee Cattermole again. I hope he can have the same effect this week because he was a real driving force who led by example. He'll be pivotal for us for the next few weeks."

The admiration is mutual. "The manager has been brilliant," Cattermole said. "It would be nice to finish off the season strongly for him. We're still aiming for the top 10.

"The manager told us this week that it would only be the third time in 55 years that Sunderland had finished in the top 10. If we could do that it would be a big step forward for us.

"This is a massive part of the season for us. Two-thirds of it has gone so well. We can't let it end in disappointment."