The 25-year-old midfielder, who might have left the club during the summer after finding himself on the wrong side of former manager Paolo Di Canio, turned in a typically combative display to set the Black Cats on the road to a first Barclays Premier League win of the season just when they needed it most.
He made way to warm applause as Poyet introduced the more creative Ki Sung-yueng in an ultimately successful bid for three points, and his reception from his manager was just as heartfelt.
The Uruguayan said: "I am sure we are going to make Lee a much better player than what people think, and that tells you how important he is for the football club.
"He is paying attention, he is always asking questions, he is always learning and if someone needed to play in this game above any game, it was Lee Cattermole, so there was no doubt in my mind about who was starting in the middle.
"Then, of course, you have got options, but I am sure he is going to be much better, and I hope he is going to keep helping us."