When it was published last week, the list of retained players at Sunderland ahead of the 2020/2021 season made for interesting reading. Once you looked past those who will be crucial (Maguire, Gooch, and Willis) and those whose future is the cause of much debate (Wyke, Grigg), there was one man on the list who stood out, not because he is divisive or the subject of vicious criticism, but because he is well-respected and admired by all.
It’s a safe bet that few players in the current playing squad (with the possible exception of Denver Hume, another academy-bred player) will be feeling the pain of Sunderland’s current plight more than Grant Leadbitter, and that nobody would be more eager to see a successful promotion challenge mounted next season. Like every one of us, he’s doubtless desperate to see the club restored to a place among the top clubs in the country.
When he returned to the club in January 2019, I saw it as a positive, shrewd, and logical move. After all, he was a player who was one of the few surviving links to the Roy Keane era, a man who knew the club well, understood the demands placed on Sunderland players, and brought experience, that most valued of commodities in this league, to the table.
Re-establishing himself in the squad at what was undoubtedly a tricky time as we fought to keep our promotion bid on track, it soon became clear that the dynamism of old wasn’t quite at the level of years gone by, and that his influence wasn’t as strong as it had been during the memorable 2006/2007 season, where he dovetailed beautifully alongside Dean Whitehead.
This is not to say that Leadbitter has not contributed during his second spell at the club. The way he composed himself and performed in the playoff semi-final second leg against Portsmouth, in the wake of family tragedy, was a mark of his fortitude and dedication to the cause, and one of the iconic photos of that night was of Lee Cattermole and Leadbitter together, on the pitch after the game, was an image that endures today. Our playoff run ultimately failed to end successfully, but Leadbitter won even more respect in the process.
And so to next season. With George Dobson, Max Power, and possibly Elliot Embleton forcing his way back into the picture, plus the potential addition of incoming players to fight for midfield berths, will Leadbitter’s contribution be limited to ten-minute league cameos and possible starts in the EFL trophy or Carabao Cup?
Given the inevitable fixture pile-up we may encounter next season, squad rotation will doubtless come into play at various stages throughout the season, but even so, I would be extremely surprised if Leadbitter was given any significant game time, unless we run into a severe injury crisis or find ourselves going extremely deep into one or more of the cup competitions.
To that end, maybe we could begin to consider the possibility that Leadbitter’s future at Sunderland lies in a non-playing capacity. Assuming that his playing career does begin to wind down next season, maybe he will become an increasingly visible presence on the touchline, or perhaps behind the scenes at the academy (that is, assuming we still have a functioning academy by that time). If given the opportunity, there is absolutely no reason why he couldn’t guide and nurture young players, aiding their development and imbuing them with a true sense of what playing for this club entails.
Given the absolutely appalling results over the last few years, it’s fair to say that that the academy’s coaching team is, at best, mediocre and at worst, downright incompetent. Leadbitter alone wouldn’t be able to fix every issue that is holding us back, but tapping into his experience would certainly be a good place to begin if we want to rebuild that area of the club.
Making use of former players in various capacities is something that has long been discussed among our fans, especially since the club has hit rough waters with failed promotion bids and a general lack of direction. Perhaps further down the track, we can hope for that at boardroom level, but in the short-term, providing coaching pathways for the likes of Leadbitter would be a positive step, and an effective way of keeping former players at the heart of the club.