Ex-Sunderland and Middlesbrough captain Grant Leadbitter opens up on coaching plans and watching his side win at Wembley - exclusive

As a player, Grant Leadbitter’s previous experiences of Wembley Stadium left a hollow feeling.

Saturday, 4th June 2022, 12:00 pm

The former midfielder captained Middlesbrough during the 2015 Championship play-off final, as the Teessiders found themselves 2-0 down inside 15 minutes and were unable to respond.

Four years later, Leadbitter returned to the national stadium twice with boyhood club Sunderland, first in the Checkatrade Trophy final as the Black Cats were beaten in penalty shootout by Portsmouth.

There was a chance for redemption as the Wearsiders faced Charlton in the League One play-off final at the end of that season, yet, despite taking an early lead, they were undone by a stoppage-time winner.

Grant Leadbitter applauds Sunderland fans at the Stadium of Light. Photo: Frank Reid

That was Sunderland’s seventh straight defeat at Wembley, dating back to their FA Cup final win in 1973. Leadbitter was inconsolable after the full-time whistle following the Charlton loss. Sunderland’s former kit man John Cooke tried to lift the crestfallen figure.

The central midfielder was able to help end Sunderland’s Wembley hoodoo as the Black Cats beat Tranmere 1-0 in the 2021 Papa John’s Trophy final, yet Covid-19 restrictions meant the fixture was played inside an empty stadium.

Wind the clock forward 14 months and Leadbitter, who announced his retirement as a player last year, was one of the 46,000 Sunderland supporters who finally saw their side win at Wembley. A four-year stay in League One was finally ended with a 2-0 win over Wycombe Wanderers.

“It was more nerve-racking to be honest but you are just so pleased they did it,” Leadbitter tells the Echo when asked about his experiences that weekend.

Grant Leadbitter playing for Sunderland against Charlton at Wembley. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

“I did fancy them to win the game.

“It’s good for the football club, really good. I took my daughter down and wanted my daughter to experience the fan side of it and she loved it.

“That’s my daughter’s memory now so I loved it and am pleased Sunderland are getting to where they should be.”

At the age of 36 Leadbitter is now looking towards his next challenge within football. He certainly has plenty to offer following his spells at Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Ipswich.

“I love football,” he says while discussing his future plans. “I love being on the grass so I do have something going on in the next couple of weeks that I will be going into somewhere and taking a coaching role.

“That will happen over the next few weeks I think.

“I have completed my A Licence and have done all that and I want to learn properly, I don’t want to rush it.

“I’ve said that many times before I don’t want to rush things because it’s a different process and you have to learn so much from people, different types of managers and different types of coaches.

“I’ve got a plan in my head that I want to do over the next four or five years.”

Leadbitter has also leant plenty from his former managers during an 18-year playing career. As we are talking before Cooke’s testimonial match at South Shields, former Sunderland boss Jack Ross is also in attendance.

“Jack’s organisation, that’s one thing I took from Jack was organisational skills for training and stuff like that,” says Leadbitter as he looks over to his former manager. “It was top draw.

“All the people you played under you take some good but for me I take quite a lot of the bad stuff that I didn’t like so that’s where I wouldn’t want to go wrong from my experiences.”

One thing which Leadbitter feels all successful teams must have is an identity and clear way of playing.

The former Sunderland skipper believes that is one of Black Cats’ main strengths under head coach Alex Neil, who was appointed in February and has lost just one of his 18 matches since taking charge on Wearside.

“I think one thing you see with Alex Neil since he’s come into the football club over the last six months, this team has got an identity for starters,” Leadbitter explains.

“I think the way he’s simplified the whole football club. I think he’s quietened the noise from the outside of the football club. When I went back I think the noise from outside was affecting it inside the club

“I think Alex has done a terrific job going there, quieting it all down and letting the players do the talking which I think is the best way to do it.

“You can see he’s a manager, he leads by example and hopefully he’s successful next season as well.”

That outside noise of Sunderland being in League One appeared to weigh the team down at times, while other sides seemed to raise their game when they travelled to the Stadium of Light.

Neil’s straight-talking and calm approach has helped ease the tension, though, with the Black Cats finally escaping the clutches of England’s third tier.

“Personally I didn’t feel it but I know some players did,” admits Leadbitter. “The outside noise in League One can affect players.

“Alex has done a terrific job of quieting it all down, letting the players perform and that’s the way I think they got promoted.”

The work Neil has done during his short spell on Wearside led to a memorable and successful weekend for Sunderland fans at Wembley.

After several crushing moments at the national stadium, Leadbiter could also enjoy the euphoric experience as his boyhood club - finally - made it over the line.