GRANT LEADBITTER holds back tears as he describes what walking out at Wembley with Sunderland will mean to him.
This is a player who took a pay cut to re-join his boyhood club in League One in January despite offers from promotion-chasing Championship sides.
A player who, as a young fan, sobbed in the stands at Wembley when the Black Cats lost the FA Cup final in 1992 and the Division One play-off final six years later.
And a player whose late father Brian’s ashes are buried under the Stadium of Light turf.
So do not try telling Leadbitter this is only the Checkatrade Trophy – because, for him, today’s showpiece with Portsmouth means so much more.
The Sunderland midfielder, 33, told SunSport: “It’s going to mean a lot to me and my family.
“Sunderland is the only club I would have left Middlesbrough for. The club is big for my family and big for me.
“So it will be emotional, but not just because of my dad. It will be emotional because I am a Sunderland fan – and Sunderland fans want to see their side win at Wembley.”
Leadbitter was only two-years-old when he first started coming to Sunderland games with his dad, then he joined their junior ranks at the age of six.
He made his first-team debut aged 17 – and his photo hangs on the ‘Hall of Fame’ wall of academy graduates at the Black Cats’ training ground.
But Leadbitter left Sunderland for Ipswich six years later in 2009, 16 months after his father died following what was described at the time as a “tragic accident”.
He explained: “That was the main reason I left the football club. I needed to get away from the North East. It was the best thing for me and my family.
“I needed to be myself, I needed to be a man, I needed to make my career in a different way.”
Leadbitter spent three years at Ipswich before returning to the North East with Middlesbrough in 2012, and was captain when they won promotion in 2016.
But when the chance to come back home came about in January, he knew he was ready.
‘HAD TO MAKE IT HAPPEN’
Pausing to compose himself, Leadbitter admitted: “When I found out Sunderland were interested, I had to make it happen.
“Money is not everything in football. I had options to go to teams who were fighting for the play-offs in the Championship. But I want to have respect for the football club I am playing for.
“You have a lot of players nowadays who go out and play games just for the sake of playing games, but I think that’s wrong because you don’t play to your best.
“When you are playing for Sunderland you have got to have a bite, you’ve got to feel it. People say I feel it that bit extra – and yeah, I do.
“I don’t know if there is another player in the football world who plays on a home pitch and their dad’s ashes are underneath it.
“But that makes me proud and I am over it now. It took a while, but time passes. I can now go out at the Stadium of Light and just play football.
“That’s probably the reason I came back – because I knew. If I came back earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to.”
In truth, despite this hometown team’s fall to League One, Leadbitter could not have timed his return better – especially now he has a chance to lay some Wembley ghosts to rest.
In ‘92, he saw Sunderland lose 2-0 in the FA Cup to Liverpool, then in ‘98 he was there when Charlton won the play-offs after Michael Gray missed in the penalty shoot-out following a 4-4 draw.
And his only Wembley visit as a player was as Middlesbrough skipper in 2015, when the team bus arrived late and Norwich scored twice in the first 15 minutes to win the play-off final 2-0.
Leadbitter recalled: “I was in tears in 1992 and 1998. In ‘92, I didn’t really know what was going on, but you just get drawn in with the emotion of the football club and drawn in with your dad’s emotion.
“My memories of ‘98 were Clive Mendonca scoring a hat-trick and Micky Gray missing a penalty. I didn’t dare watch the penalties. I went to the back of the stands on my own. I knew we had lost when I heard the Charlton fans and everyone was walking out.
“Those things live with you forever – and the 2015 play-off final was probably the worst footballing day of my career. The bus was late, we turned up at 2.10pm and had to get massages in our suits.
“It’s not ideal when you are driving down Wembley Way when there are no fans there. Then you end up being 2-0 down after 15 minutes. It was a bad day from start to finish.”
Leadbitter is clearly, then, praying for a better day against Portsmouth.
More than 40,000 Sunderland supporters will be there in the hope of witnessing the club’s first Wembley win since their FA Cup triumph in 1973 – including plenty of Leadbitter’s family and friends.
And he added: “My mam is not well but hopefully she will be OK to get there. I’ve got someone to take her down and back on the same day.
“My two little girls, who are ten and six, are looking forward to it. They have cost me a fortune because they both wanted an outfit to go to Wembley! My wife and a few of her family are going and as for friends, I couldn’t get enough tickets.
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“Wembley trips don’t come around too often, irrespective of the competition and not many Sunderland fans have seen their team win there. Over the last two or three years it’s been tough for the fans and we want to put a smile on their faces.
“This club is not where it needs to be – the club wants to be higher, it needs to be up there fighting in the top league.
“It’s stepping stones and this is a good stepping stone but you only enjoy it if you win it. There are always winners and losers at Wembley. But I’ve been there before and I don’t want to lose.”