For a few years, Grant Leadbitter had been talked up as the prospect of a generation. One of the first batch to come through the new Academy of Light, Leadbitter had represented England at under 16, 17, 19, 20 and 21 level, and there were high hopes of him really making an impact at first team level.
Mick McCarthy had given him his first team debut as a sub for John Oster in a pretty forgettable League Cup defeat to Huddersfield Town in 2003.
In fact, it was only notable for Jon Stead scoring at the Stadium of Light, something he was unable to do when in Sunderland’s employ.
A couple of years later, with just one more League Cup game, against Crewe, to his name, he was loaned to Rotherham. And, with Sunderland in the top flight and Grant just a few months away from turning 20, that spell at Millmoor seemed to be something of a make-or-break scenario.
Leadbitter’s form in South Yorkshire, combined with Sunderland’s disastrous displays in the top flight, saw a recall after five games, and Mick McCarthy began including Leadbitter in the squad, coming off the bench at The Valley in a 2-0 defeat for his top-flight debut.
Towards the end of McCarthy’s reign, Leadbitter was given the second half at home to Spurs – the game Daryl Murphy grabbed a last-minute equaliser – and he started McCarthy’s last three games, away at Blackburn, Birmingham and Manchester City.
He remained in caretaker manager Kevin Ball’s plans – all in all, playing in 11 of our final 14 games, and was the target for top-flight clubs before signing a new contract with Sunderland hoping we’d get back up sooner rather than later.
It was, of course, sooner, with Roy Keane steering the club to promotion. And a few months into his first Premier League season as manager, Keane took time out to praise Leadbitter, who’d established himself as an important player for the side.
Since I’ve come to the club he’s been absolutely fantastic and a credit.
He’s great to work with, a great lad, there’s his quality of play and the fact he’s a local boy.
I have to say he was probably one of the lads who, when I first got the job I thought his days could have been numbered. I just thought he was a bit lightweight to play around the middle of the park.
He’s one of the people you look forward to coming in to work with - hopefully, he’s got a good chance of having a good career.
Obviously, he’s not reached the levels or the consistency of Scholes but even the way he trains, his enthusiasm, he seems to love training and playing. He does remind me of Scholes a small bit.
He’s not got that aggressive streak - not yet.
However, Keane noted one attribute that Scholes had that was pretty unattainable for Leadbitter.
But not many people have what Scholes’ has. It helps when you’re ginger! He hasn’t got that fire in his belly yet, but that will come. He’s no angel, either.
It’s getting the balance right, having the devil in you without getting too nasty. All the top midfielders have that nasty streak.
Keane’s admiration for Leadbitter, of course, was long-lasting and, in addition to regularly selecting him for Sunderland, took him to Ipswich – along with Carlos Edwards – when he was appointed at Portman Road.
Leadbitter spent three seasons in East Anglia, scoring 13 goals in more than 100 games, before heading back up north to spend seven seasons on Teesside, where he played the best football of his career, before returning to Sunderland for a hit-and-miss season and a half.
It’s fair to say he didn’t live up to the expectation of his early career, but you can very easily see just why Keane liked him so much – a reliable, no-nonsense player who gave his all every time he walked out onto the pitch. Right in Roy’s good books.