In 1978, The Buzzcocks released their most famous song “Ever Fallen In Love” (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve), detailing lead singer Pete Shelley’s infatuation with his housemate Francis Cookson.
On May 29th 2012, the whole of Teesside would fall in love with someone they shouldn’t have as well. Teesside fell in love with a dyed-in-the-wool Black Cat, a born and bred Sunderland fan. Teesside fell in love with a Mackem and his name was Grant Leadbitter.
Signed on a free transfer from Ipswich Town, Grant Leadbitter entered Middlesbrough F.C. as a “good solid pro” tasked with pulling together an engine room full of odds and sods when he arrived in 2012.
Teamed with the likes of perma-crock Rhys Williams, human potato Nicky Bailey, local lad Richie Smallwood and cult hero Faris HAROOOOOOUN in midfield, Leads would spent much of his first year in a red shirt firefighting as a promising charge up the table in the first half of the season went into freefall after new year; the Boro only managing 3 wins out of the last 21 games. Leadbitter had already begun to make his mark in MFC folklore though as he was named Player of the Year and began to deputise as captain in the absence of Williams.
The Boro carried on as they had left off at the start of the 2013/14 season, with poor results and mounting pressure from the stands putting an end to Tony Mowbray’s time as manager and ushering in a new era for Middlesbrough Football Club. The era of Aitor Karanka and his Handsome Reds.
Grant Leadbitter was the man who kept things steady as Aitor got to grips with the English game, as the midfielder began to form a telepathic understanding with Albert Adomah, as well as a steely partnership with fellow “proper football man” Dean Whitehead. Those diagonal clips out to the feet of the rushing Adomah on the right flank became a Boro calling card while Deano offered vital protection in front of a back four that Karanka was slowly fine tuning into the watertight unit that would go onto break Football League records in seasons to come. Leadboots was now leader in everything but name, with then club captain Jonathan Woodgate featuring semi-regularly due to his weetabix knees and age, and every leader needs a right hand man.
Batman had Robin, Harry Potter had Ron Weasley, Tony Soprano had Silvio Dante and Grant Leadbitter would have Adam Clayton. The axis upon which Aitor’s Handsome Reds would rotate and obliterate all comers was created in the summer transfer window of 2014 and the duo would dominate the division for two seasons as Boro established themselves as Championship heavyweights, with Clayts and Leads the prizefighters in the middle of the park. No holds barred, no quarter given, no ground lost. When those two went to war, they won.
The 2014/15 season is one that will live long in the memory of Boro fans, as it will for Grant Leadbitter as he recorded a career best goal tally of 13 in league and cup, including a couple of true thunderbastard efforts and some ice-cold penalties. Nothing sums that up like Leadbitter’s virtuoso performance against Huddersfield in September of that season. Plenty of words have been written about that swerving, flying, ROBERTO CARLOS EAT YOUR HEART OUT FELLA, 35 yard free kick (see below, it’s still beautiful) but Leadbitter’s second from that game is *just* as good. Trust us.
Pegged back by the customary Jon Stead against Boro goal, the Reds were gifted a stoppage time penalty after a clumsy challenge in the box. Up stepped the skipper. The tension was palpable. Grown men were sweating and shaking. Not Grant, though. The run up was all blood and thunder yet the finish was as calm as you like into the bottom corner to send the travelling Red Army into hysterics. All the boys about 5 rows in front, bruised shins and man hugs all round.
— Barry Cellnet (@BarryCellnet) January 24, 2019
He followed that performance with an absolute THWACK of a goal against Brentford shortly thereafter, playing a one-two with Jelle Vossen before unleashing a piledriver that sailed past the keeper and almost sent the net into the River Tees. Remember when they said we could only score from set pieces? The combative skipper then marshaled his troops for battle against the elite, as Boro somehow outfought, out-thought and sent reigning Premier League champions Man City out of the FA Cup in their own back garden.
While that season is fondly remembered it would eventually end in heartache and be defined by the now iconic image of Grant Leadbitter, dead eyed, in front of the red end of Wembley. Having fallen to Norwich in the play-off final, the tears were flowing for everyone connected to MFC. Everyone except Grant Leadbitter. He stood arms folded taking it all in and vowing that it wouldn’t happen again, vowing to the club that he’d now fallen in love with that he and his team-mates would make it up to the entire town for this disappointment.
It didn’t take them long.
The following season, Boro and Grant Leadbitter finally achieved promotion from the Championship, as Leads and Clayton guarded the defence with near flawless efficiency. Now firmly established as club captain, Grant gave up some attacking responsibility to the likes of Stuani and Gaston Ramirez, to ensure that Them Reds became an almost impenetrable force at the back and would be a permanent fixture in the promotion race.
Every time the Big Red Machine faltered, Leadbitter powered them back into gear. Complete passion for a club that now emenated from his very being was manifested in a comeback win against Wolves. You could never doubt him.
Even when the club seemed to wobble as in the early part of 2016, the club being thrown into array by “Karankagate”, Leadbitter was galvanising his team behind the scenes. The Mackem turned Smoggy led the fight back, shushed QPR and danced on the pitch as glory was secured that fateful afternoon against Brighton. While it’s the chants of “In 86” and the bevvy-fuelled scenes at the Dickens that most will remember Leadbitter for in the aftermath of promotion, it’s a brief moment at the Riverside that I’ll always cherish.
As the team made their lap of honour, Albert Adomah gyrating with that tiny trophy, the skipper and driving force was bringing up the rear taking it all in. Stood in front of the Boys End with only his kids for company, the chants of “It’s Magic You Know” ringing all around, things couldn’t have been more different than a year prior at Wembley. It was a knowing look, a single shake of the fist but it meant much more than that. He knew how much this meant to us and we knew how much it meant to him.
Promotion would come at a price. Our fearless captain had spent months playing through a hernia complication, pain numbing injections and an unmatched desire to win the only things pulling him through. Hernia surgery would see Leadbitter’s Premier League campaign cut to 13 appearances, as the club failed to avoid relegation and fell back to the Championship. We’ll always have those glorious minutes at Old Trafford though, after Grant had turned an Alvaro Negredo knock down past David De Gea. Things were good, then.
Recent times have seen the now 33 year old limited to substitute appearances in the league and being used as a tutor for the kids in the cup. It speaks volumes about the man’s professionalism and love for MFC that he was prepared to turn down offers from other Championship clubs to fight for his place. It genuinely hurt him having to warm the bench or sit in the stands, unlike some players, yet he wanted to fight for this club like he had done for over 6 years. When called upon, nothing had changed except the haircut. The fire and intensity always burned for Leadbitter.
It tells you even more about the man that he’s taken a substantial pay cut to go and finish his career with the team he supports, in a league below.
244 appearances and 33 goals across seven seasons don’t even begin to scratch the surface of what Grant Leadbitter has done in his time at Middlesbrough Football Club. The man who was regarded as merely a “good solid pro” upon his arrival leaves as a stalwart of this club. A man that leaves with universal good wishes from the Teesside faithful, Grant Leadbitter embodied the will and desire that defined a town during Aitor Karanka’s reign and leaves big shoes to fill. Grant Leadbitter has left the blueprint on how to succeed at Boro; give your heart for this club and this club will give you our hearts.
Grant Leadbitter never said die and we’ll always remember him for it. Let’s hope there’s a few people at Rockliffe who’re prepared to follow suit.
Thanks for everything, Grant. Look after him, you sad Mackem bastards. He’s magic you know and it’s been incredibly hard to watch Leadbitter go.
Image Credits: BPI, Teesside Live