As Grant Leadbitter walked back through the streets of Sunderland after nearly a decade away, it seemed like nothing could wipe the smile from his face.
The 33-year-old midfielder returned to his boyhood club in the final days of the January transfer window, following a six-year spell at North East neighbours Middlesbrough.
This was Leadbitter’s first public appearance since the move, as he and defender Jack Baldwin took part in a club support campaign to meet local retailers on Blandford Street, Sunderland.
The area was recently hit by a devastating fire and, as Leadbitter points out, ‘a lot has gone under the bridge’ since his last visit.
But as the midfielder told the club’s website following the move, he’s ‘buzzing’ to be back.
“It has been a few years since I have been back in the town, the city, so it feels weird,” said Leadbitter, who could make his second debut for Sunderland this weekend.
“It feels home from home, from the day I went into the academy on Tuesday, Wednesday. I was speaking to Catts (Lee Cattermole) about it, it was funny, I settled in straight away and the banter was flying.
“I am happy. It is a great challenge for me. I didn’t want any regrets, missed opportunities and these don’t come around too often. I am at an age now where it isn’t just about emotional ties, or whatever, it is about achieving something as well.”
Leadbitter left Sunderland, where he made over 100 appearances, for Ipswich in 2009, before signing for Boro three years later.
Yet he’s always kept an eye on the Black Cats, which hasn’t always been easy following their relegation to the third tier.
The mood has changed this season, though, following the arrival of new owner Stewart Donald and manager Jack Ross.
Leadbitter has been impressed by their work so far and is looking forward to a new challenge on Wearside.
“This club is in a good place at moment and I want to be a part of that,” said Leadbitter.
“I left this club ten years ago, a lot has gone under the bridge since then. I can only judge from Tuesday, it doesn’t feel like a club that has endured back to back relegations.
“That is testament to the manager and coaching staff here, they have a young bunch of lads all hungry to succeed. It’s credit to this squad they have got themselves in a good position and now we want to finish it off and I am a part of that.
“I have watched Sunderland from afar this season, it has been good, interesting to sense the buzz around the club. When the move came around, I wanted that challenge.
“I didn’t want to just stay in a league where I have achieved things, I wanted to go to a club that meant something to me and to help it achieve it.”
When it comes to winning promotion, Leadbitter has been there and done it.
In his first spell on Wearside, the midfielder helped Sunderland get out of the Championship under Roy Keane, before repeating a similar feat at Middlesbrough in 2016.
Yet Leadbitter, who also attracted interest from Championship clubs before joining the Black Cats, isn’t taking anything for granted and doesn’t want to dwell on the past.
“I want things to be taken from today though, not ten years ago,” he added.
“It is about my time at this club from now. I want to help my teammates to succeed. You are not judged on the past, you are judged on now.
“You only get there by taking things slowly. I have been promoted before and you have to keep working hard every day to get results.
“I have watched teams and it helps on a Saturday when everyone is focused on the job ahead.”
Ross confirmed Leadbitter will be in the squad to face AFC Wimbledon at the Stadium of Light, yet it’s unclear if the midfielder will start.
Despite dropping down the pecking order at Middlesbrough, Leadbitter was repeatedly praised by Boro boss Tony Pulis for his professionalism and work ethic.
And the midfielder hopes he can make a similar impression at the Stadium of Light.
“Since a young age I’ve always stepped up to certain things and beliefs I’ve always instilled in me, I try and pass it on,” said Leadbitter.
“Sometimes it rubs off on players, sometimes it doesn’t but I think there are some good young hungry players here along with some very good players, people like Catts, who is high regarded at this football club.
“He’s kept things going over the tough seasons, he’s the one who digs himself in day in day out so it’s good to see him.”
That may come as a surprise to some, who remember the pair’s scuffle in the 2007 Wear-Tees derby.
“Me and Catts get on like a house on fire, trust me,” said Leadbitter, who can’t wait to get going.