As well as embracing the surprising delights of League One and enjoying the revelatory quirks of football at this level, this season has also been a form social and cultural experience for the Sunderland fans - a reawakening of unity and sense of self.
From the disaster of back to back relegations and the fearful anticipation of “what happens next?”, Sunderland fans have been on an interesting journey this season. Yes, parts of it have been unorthodox, other aspects have been uplifting beyond measure and of late, some factors of this season have been disappointing and pernicious.
For someone of my vintage, this season has also been somewhat sentimental, as I’ve recalled with a reassuring fondness my childhood memories of being a small boy traversing the peaks and troughs of third division football with his dad, the last time we were flat on our backsides and relegated from England’s second league.
So, as sentimentalism has played a small part of our season so far, I couldn’t quite work out if my satisfaction at Grant Leadbitter’s re-signing was fuelled by my emotions or whether my gratification at the news was perpetuated by footballing common sense.
Is it because a Mackem prodigal son has returned to the fold? Or am I so pleased because he’s a genuinely good signing and will add a positive dynamic to our promotion push?
Sunderland supporters have often admired men of a certain ilk. Men who can play. Men who can work. Men who can lead and if necessary. Men who can embrace the fire of confrontation.
Grant Leadbitter’s role and effectiveness in this capacity surely can’t be questioned. Can anyone argue that he leaves the pitch without giving his all?
He’s been a team captain and a club captain for several years and that surely shows something of the character of Grant Leadbitter, right? Yes, it indicates he’s a player on the pitch of a certain ability level, but it also speaks volumes of his leadership skillset - a resource any football club needs in abundance.
Could we do with more leaders in the squad? I don’t think you can have enough positive role models at a club hell bent on resuscitation and resurrection.
“A great football team needs good leaders, good communicators and good technicians. People need passion, desire and most importantly, a willingness to keep learning.”
When it comes to whether or not he fits into our matchday eleven, of course that is always up for debate. That’s fair. But even if Grant for whatever reason can’t force his way into our team every Saturday, isn’t it true that that there are more characteristics to a leader than just what he delivers come match day?
Is it worth considering the wider role of leadership in general and how the execution of this experienced duty is crucial to the club moving forward?
The answer to that has to be a magnificent yes. I don’t think you can query this.
Leadbitter delivers a multitude of leadership attributes that several championship clubs were also determined to secure, and regardless of age or similarity to players we currently have in the squad, we need calm, wise and humble heads to keep our ship steady and moving forward.
For Jack Ross, signing Leadbitter is a no-brainer. Not only does Grant possess a wealth of experience at a higher level than we’re currently playing, Ross gets captain material, a bounty of leadership ability, a fiery competitor and a competent football player with a never-say-die attitude.
But Grant is also more than that. He’s a symbol - an emblem of who we are and what we’re trying to create. He’s a hardworking grafter, who has shown both grit and humility during trying times and has never shirked responsibility. Being a player who takes up a shirt and a space in the dressing room is not the whole sum of his parts. Not by any stretch.
Grant is an image of north eastern determination. Sunderland have rarely sat at the high table of the footballing Gods in the modern era and really felt comfortable. We’ve fought, kicked and forced our way through the barriers of our so-called limitations to have our days in the sporting sun.
Leadbitter is a living testament of hard work, of a man who clawed his way to the bright lights of a successful footballing career, using everything that he has in the tank.
In the last few years and perhaps, blinded by the dazzle of Premier League glamour, we had to some extent forgotten our roots. Ross, Donald and Methven have spoken of a return to a recognisable working-class brand, a relatable relationship between the club and the very hard working, hardy, down to earth fans that the club itself is meant to represent.
It is no wonder, then, that the club have welcomed the return of Grant Leadbitter, a man born, bred and forged on the same streets and in the same communities as the very men and women who release their hard-earned cash to watch him play. Grant is a symbol of the very community that our owners and manager are desperate to fully reconnect with.
Leadbitter’s signing also reinforces the cultural shift we can hope to embrace in the future. He’s an academy product, costing very little in terms of output but gives all he can in terms input. For the rest of the aspiring academy players, he’s a living reminder of what can be achieved with dedication, commitment and humble leadership.
In signing Grant Leadbitter, Jack Ross is not recruiting the most skillful player. He is not appointing the next young whizz kid, or the new Roy Keane. He is looking at the collective group and what Grant could do to improve the collaborative approach to maintain the forward direction of our footballing trajectory.
In this instance, Leadbitter the man is just as crucial as Leadbitter the player. When it comes to keeping the high standards that have been set so far this season Grant and his approach to professionalism and the game itself, will only help sustain our efforts towards promotion.
Naturally the sentimental side of me longs for such sporting reunions. I’m still waiting for Super Kev to arrive on our door to manage or coach us in some capacity. I’m not sure it would even work, but my emotional inhibitors scream with abandon, ‘Who cares?! Its Super Kev!’
So, of course my almost uncontrollable desire for footballing sentiment welcomes the signing of Leadbitter with metaphorical cartwheels and imaginary ticker-tape parades.
But bringing Grant back into the fold is so much more than a PR exercise or a deliberate, purposeful move to keep a restless fanbase on board with the recruitment of a local lad, who supports Sunderland as passionately as the fans themselves.
Leadbitter has taken a significant pay cut to be here. He wants to be here. He wants to play. He wants the club to move forward. He wants promotion. He wants all the things we want, because he is one of us. He’s one of the classic on-field unsung heroes and now he’s ours once again.
When used correctly, experienced leaders recognised as ‘unsung heroes’ help those around them to build their self-esteem, to go beyond their expectations, and create an environment that harnesses individual talents into a unified effort that works for the good of the collective.
Leadbitter’s return is not a sentimental final lap of honour for a player on his last legs. His re-signing is all about business - the business of improving the squad and injecting further leadership and character into a team determined to fight for promotion.
And when it comes to the fight, Grant is first in line.
Welcome home lad. Welcome home.