'The hardest thing I’ve done' - Grant Leadbitter opens up on his time away from Sunderland and why he is 'massively thankful' to the club's supporters
Grant Leadbitter has opened up about his decision to take some time away from Sunderland last season – and says he is ‘massively thankful’ for the support of the fans during a hugely difficult period.
The midfielder took time away from the game in early 2020 after the passing of his mother Susan in 2019, before returning to the club ahead of the current campaign.
And in his appearance on the #SAFCUnfiltered Podcast, Leadbitter reflected on his time away from the game - and why although it was a difficult decision, it proved to be the right one.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, it really was,” he said.
"The hardest thing I’ve done – the day I went into Phil [Parkinson]’s office and told him I needed to do it. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew I had to for the sake of myself, the sake of my teammates.
"I was club captain of the football club so I felt like I was letting people down, I was letting myself down. For four or five months my performance levels weren’t right, my concentration levels in training weren’t right.
"It comes to a head and it was a decision that I didn’t take lightly because I knew my age – would I ever come back from it?
"That was the risk I took, but when you go through so much off the field football is a small thing. There’s nobody who loves football more than me and I take football every day proper, but taking that time out with my family, my kids – a lot of my career I’ve put football first because I believe I need to give my all to the football club.”
Leadbitter was also highly complimentary of the support offered by Roy Keane in 2008 – shortly after his father Brian had passed away.
At that point, the midfielder kept busy and continued training and playing, but he quickly realised the same approach would not work in 2020.
"I know I should have taken time off much earlier, but I was trying to do the same process as when I lost my dad to get back into football,” he admitted.
"I always remember Roy [Keane] helped me loads. He gave me the great advice that ‘you’re the kind of kid who needs to keep busy, I want you to come in and train every day.’
"100 per cent it worked then, I played for two years after at Sunderland and was really successful in the Premier League and it worked.
"This time around, I remember it coming to the play-off final and it was the March time when things started. I kept it to myself, I didn’t let people know and kept it personal but things deteriorated quite quickly around that. I was quite quiet around myself which is unusual.
"We lost the play-off final and let me tell you, that was tough. The funeral happened a few days later and then I went away and took no time off. If we’d won the play-off final then maybe I'd have taken time off, but I didn’t take no time off mentally.
"Physically, I was working every day on holiday with my kids and it caught up with me.”
And while Leadbitter may have returned to the first-team fold at Sunderland this season – and has put in some stellar performances in the process – he is still very much in the process of dealing with his grief.
"I’m openly proud to say I’m still working with someone now,” added the midfielder.
"This is not going to go away. There’ll be people out there in similar situations to me, or probably worse, and I can sit here and say once a week I sit and speak to someone and that’s something I’m openly proud of. It helps me speak about the past, family and how I feel – and it drives me on each day.
"To be honest, the COVID maybe helped because I might have come back too soon,” he continued.
"The plan was that I was going to have three, four weeks to settle things down.
"But I knew. I knew when I took the time off that this was going to be a long, long process and I’m still going through it now.”
Leadbitter was also quick to praise the support of the Sunderland faithful, who gave their backing to the 35-year-old during his absence.
‘Grant Leadbitter, he’s one of our own’ was chanted at away fixtures, while another of the midfielder’s former clubs in Middlesbrough unfurled a banner in support of the midfielder.
And such acts of kindness didn’t go unnoticed by the man himself and his family.
"Obviously I’m massively thankful for the support they’ve given me,” he said.
"At the time I wasn’t performing for the football club, but the support I was given from Sunderland fans – and Middlesbrough fans as well – the support I got throughout the North East was massive.
"It made my family in tears and it was quite emotional at the time it came out.
"But the support I got from the fans was absolutely amazing and I was blown away, and when I came back I knew I had something to prove and some unsettled business.
"I always backed myself. I back myself quietly – I may not be the loudest person, but I back myself which I think you’ve got to.”