Sunderland’s hopes of avoiding relegation received a double blow when captain Lee Cattermole and leading goalscorer Steven Fletcher were ruled out for the rest of the season.
Cattermole has been troubled by a knee injury throughout the season and has played only 10 Premier League games, starting just twice since November. He had an injection into his knee last month in a bid to resolve the long-standing problem but yesterday he admitted defeat in his desire to play during the current campaign and underwent surgery.
Martin O’Neill, the Sunderland manager, has admitted the absence of Cattermole this season has been a factor in their struggle for consistency, however the loss of Fletcher is an even more sobering blow. Fletcher has been one of the few successes at the Stadium of Light this season, scoring 11 times since his £12m move from Wolves last summer, including a run of five goals in five games following his transfer.
The 26-year-old damaged his ankle ligaments playing for Scotland against Wales on Friday and may also require surgery. Sunderland will monitor his situation over the next two weeks. If he does need an operation, he will aim to be fit for August.
The onus is now on Danny Graham, on whom O’Neill spent £5.5m in January in bringing him from Swansea. Graham has yet to score for his new club. England Under-21 forward Connor Wickham, who has returned from a loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday, and Stéphane Sessègnon will also be asked to score the goals to keep Sunderland up.
O’Neill’s side has picked up just one point from their last seven Premier League games, sending them to within four points of third-bottom Wigan. They entertain Manchester United on Saturday, and then face Chelsea, Newcastle, Everton and Aston Villa.
“Cattermole underwent an operation on his knee earlier today and Fletcher sustained ankle ligament damage whilst on international duty with Scotland,” said a statement on the club’s website.
“It is not known at this stage if Fletcher will require an operation, with the injury requiring further assessment in the coming weeks. Both players will play no further part in the Black Cats 2012-13 Premier League season.”
David Miliband, who has just stood down as a Labour MP, will continue as a board member at the club. Miliband announced he was leaving politics yesterday to move to take up a charity position in New York but will stay on as vice-chairman and non-executive director at Sunderland.