Grant Leadbitter opens up on his Sunderland return and why he backed himself to prove the doubters wrong
Grant Leadbitter has opened up on his return to the Sunderland side after 'tough times' - and says he always backed himself to prove doubters wrong and come back stronger.
The Sunderland midfielder went nine months without a competitive game after personal issues forced him to take a break from playing.
Leadbitter was given time off by managr Phil Parkinson late in the 2019/20 season, which was eventually curtailed, with the midfielder having subsequently admitted he needed time to be with his family.
But the 34-year-old has returned to the fold with a bang this season, and showed his worth against Ipswich Town by calmly converting the winning penalty with six minutes to go to keep Sunderland's promotion campaign on track.
"I've been through some tough times, it's well-documented about that,” he said, speaking to the Echo for the first time since his personal issues.
"It's something I had to do personally for myself and for my family - and I've learnt that [family] comes first now.
"But I've always backed myself to come back to Sunderland Football Club and do well. It's something I had belief of in myself. even when some people maybe didn't.
"I always back myself and as long as you continue to work hard every day and keep pushing yourself, as I have done throughout my career, I'll always back myself.”
His second goal of the campaign came in Tuesday evening’s win over Ipswich Town, and sealed what ultimately could prove to be a vital victory.
It came after a contentious hand ball call, which had Ipswich players and staff up in arms.
And while commotion reigned in the penalty area, Leadbitter took himself away from the drama with the ball beneath his arm.
He found himself an oasis of calm away from the madness, which was reflected in the composure of his spot-kick.
"It's something I've always done," he explained.
"I was penalty taker for quite a few years at Middlesbrough and it's something I always like to do.
"When penalties are given there's always a lot of commotion going on in the area, everyone surrounds the referee and I've always liked to take myself away from that because you can step away and keep calm.”
Another key flashpoint in the game came when Ipswich’s Andre Dozzell was dismissed for a challenge on the Leadbitter, with the midfielder offering his take on a decision which had visiting boss Paul Lambert up in arms.
"I think the boy has come over the top and caught me,” he said.
"It's a tackle and these things happen. It's up to the referee to make the decision and we can do nothing about it now.
"I think he's just took a bad touch, come over the ball and caught me a bit.”
That proved to be a turning point in the game, and set in motion the sequence of events that allowed Leadbitter to net the winner.
It was a goal that for the second time in four days, the Black Cats left it late to seal the three points.
But for the midfielder, that is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to mounting a title charge.
"It's something you have to do,” he said.
"To get promoted or win leagues you have to score late goals and always have that belief you're going to do that.
"From my experience in the past, it's something you've got to build and if you can keep getting late goals throughout the season, it helps you build.
"Even with eleven men, we always have that belief to score late goals,” he continued.
"You've got to have that belief in your group that you can score late goals and we're always pushing to win the games - especially at home, and against a good team.”
If that will be one key to a successful promotion push, then another will be maintaining the two points-per-game average that Phil Parkinson has long spoken about.
And from his own experience of gaining promotion, Leadbitter knows how important that average can be when it comes to success.
“From my previous experience of getting promoted and winning leagues, you base your season on getting two points a game,” added Leadbitter.
"That's the target we want to do. Ten games in, 21 points - yeah, it's okay.
"We keep pushing, we keep improving each day and we want to win football matches. We've got two cup games coming up and we want to keep winning. Winning breeds confidence.”
Sunderland’s focus now turns to back-to-back cup ties, with Mansfield Town the opponents in the first round of the FA Cup before a trip to Fleetwood Town in the Papa John’s Trophy follows in midweek.
And after the morale-boosting win over the Tractor Boys – which is the kind of ‘tight game’ Leadbitter feels the Wearsiders need to win if they are to continue their promotion push – the focus now is on building more momentum.
“I think it was a tight game, pretty similar to the Peterborough one and there were two good teams going at it,” said Leadbitter of the Ipswich win.
"I think those games you have to win, at home especially. If we're going to be successful then these tight games, you have to win.
“We want to keep winning football games. It's something we want to do, it breeds confidence and keeps spirits high.”