News of Grant Leadbitter’s retirement from football will have come as no great surprise to Sunderland fans. After all, he didn’t link up with another club following his release from Sunderland in the summer, and nobody could blame the 35-year-old for ending his playing days at the club where it all started – and the club he loves.
Yet the Chester-le-Street born midfielder’s announcement on social media yesterday has been met with an outpouring of affection and respect from supporters of not only Sunderland, but Middlesborough and Ipswich Town.
In an era when the divide between players and fans has never been greater, there was something refreshingly appealing about Leadbitter both on and off the pitch.
Always a man to wear his shirt with pride, Leadbitter’s long and successful playing career speaks for itself.
Fans could relate to Grant. He was never one for using cliches in post-match interviews, always spoke with honestly and integrity, had a club first mentality, and was always deeply proud of his passion for Sunderland AFC.
Leadbitter endured deep personal tragedy not once, but twice, during his two spells at Sunderland. It’s something far removed from football, yet which many of us can relate to in our own lives.
Grant overcome such devastation in his own way. Who could forget the emotional scenes following Leadbitter’s wonder strike against Arsenal at the SoL in October 2008, shortly after the passing of his father, Brian, at the spot where his ashes were buried beneath the pitch?
The following season, a new chapter beckoned as Grant opted for a fresh start away from the North East, at Ipswich, in the summer of 2009. It was sad to lose such a talented young player, even with the likes of Lee Cattermole and Lorik Cana coming in.
But Leadbitter’s unlikely return to Sunderland – by this point a League One club, in January 2019, brought a lump to the throat of many. Leadbitter was 33 at this point, but the video published on the club website at the time showed just how much it meant.
Leadbitter recalled how he used to watch the likes of Martin Smith and “Craigy Russ” at Roker Park as a boy, and proudly pointed at an old academy photo of himself.
We were all deeply saddened by the death of Grant’s mother, Susan, in May 2019, on the eve of our play-off semi-final second leg at Portsmouth.
The news wasn’t announced until after the game, but the fact that Leadbitter played and contributed to such a huge victory was not only a remarkable feat, it was also testament to the man’s sheer determination to succeed for Sunderland AFC, in honour of both parents who had loved the club themselves.
Leadbitter had the affection of the fans – but not only for sentimental reasons – far from it.
A high energy, all-round midfielder in his younger days, Grant was making noises as he made his way through the youth academy at Sunderland, and he represented England all the way from schoolboy level to the U21s.
In over 500 appearances during his 18-year career, Leadbitter scored 60 goals, some of them highly spectacular, for all three of the clubs he represented.
We all have our favourite strike, but I enjoyed Grant’s contributions last season just as much as the thunderbolt against Southampton during a campaign when Leadbitter brought legs and energy to Roy Keane’s Championship winning team of 2006/07.
He returned a far different player, sitting deeper and without the ability to cover the ground he once did. But he made worthy contributions for Jack Ross, Phil Parkinson and Lee Johnson.
An experienced head in front of the back four, I thought last season was Leadbitter’s best since his second coming, showing quality in possession, a cool head for the conversion of several penalties, and occasionally, just occasionally, rolling back the years with the odd spectacular strike from distance.
Like all players, he wasn’t above criticism. Some felt that the ageing Leadbitter was too slow. Not all of his set-pieces were perfect, but generally, he was consistent, brought quality to the level we were playing, and was extremely committed.
It was great to see Max Power lift the EFL Trophy when we finally picked up some silverware last season. Perhaps it would have been more fitting had Grant lifted it himself in what was to be his final season. Still, it was nice to watch him carry the trophy into the Wembley dressing room afterwards as the celebrations got underway.
This season, I wouldn’t change our midfield or indeed our team given current form and the options we have available. Yet back in June, I was disappointed when Grant was released, convinced he could have played a part for one more season, even as a bit-part player. At that point I felt he was our best midfielder, but now both player and club have parted ways and moved on.
Leadbitter couldn’t quite guide us to promotion. However, he ended his playing days in a red and white shirt, with a bit of silverware, and genuine respect and affection from the whole football community.
Whatever the future holds Grant, all the very best and thanks for the memories.