Grant Leadbitter wrestled on his wetsuit and plunged into the freezing, dark water of the local reservoir. It was 7.30am. Ahead of Leadbitter was a two-mile swim followed by a six-mile bike ride and a four-mile run.
“Let me tell you,” Leadbitter says, “it’s cold and it’s half-past-seven in the morning. It’s not wild swimming, well, it’s a bit wild – it’s different from swimming in a pool, I know that. It’s certainly different scenery.
“I had to get strength back in my groins; the doctor came with me. Then I’d get out of this reservoir, get out of my kit and jump on a bike, ride for six or seven miles. One day I got lost, did about 14 miles. At times it was tough, but good. Mentally, it was massive.”
Arsenal vs Middlesbrough memorable matches
Leadbitter is Middlesbrough’s club captain. He is, in his own description, an “intense” 31 year-old. This once-a-week routine at the local reservoir with club doctor Bryan English gave him a break from the 8am to 4pm grind in the gym, provided space. There were also hours spent in an oxygen chamber in the Multiple Sclerosis centre in Middlesbrough to build bone strength.
Leadbitter speaks rarely but in his role as club captain, he feels the need to at the end of a season which dissolved into relegation. He does not wish to “air laundry publicly” but, like Vincent Kompany at Manchester City, Leadbitter feels immense individual frustration at being unable to do more for the team collective on the pitch.
Injured last March at Blackburn, he played on through Boro’s remaining 13 matches knowing that he would require a double hernia operation. Four days after promotion Leadbitter went under the knife.
What was unknown then was that he would be out for 5 and a half months, or that by the time he returned it would be to a team failing to make the most of promotion and to a training ground uneasy with itself. Within four months manager Aitor Karanka was dismissed and now Middlesbrough are back where they were one year ago, the Championship, with an interim manager, Steve Agnew. An opportunity wasted is a phrase heard on Teesside.
“I would say it’s an opportunity missed,” Leadbitter counters, “I wouldn’t say wasted.
If that sounds defensive, Leadbitter’s response to the request to sum up Boro’s season in three words is frank: “Not good enough,” he says.
“We set a target in Marbella, pre-season, for the club to finish mid-table, between 10th and 13th. The manager sets targets and the players respect that, we believed we could do it. The squad was good enough – there’s a lot of good people in that dressing room.
“I didn’t think it was optimistic, when you get promoted, you feel you can carry that momentum. We’d a togetherness that got us promoted and we started this season OK. Unfortunately we finished in the bottom three. There are special people at this club and we’ve let them down, we’ve let down the fans.”
Recruitment, as ever, is key. Last summer Boro brought in two Spanish big names – Alvaro Negredo and Victor Valdes. Uruguay international Gaston Ramirez’s transfer was made permanent. Karanka also brought in new coaching staff, from Spain.
“Bringing big names into a club is great,” Leadbitter says, “that’s what you need. The club has done that before, excited the fans.
“And everybody got excited, and expectations rise, but sometimes when that happens, you lose track of what got us there.
“And maybe the new staff’s English wasn’t so good, maybe sometimes they couldn’t get their points across. Which is a shame.
“I always look up to my coaches and managers. But when you struggle to speak to these people, it’s tough. I was captain of the football club and I didn’t speak to them until I was back in training in October. I was injured, but it’s always nice for someone to come along and introduce themselves.”
Nationality is not an issue to Leadbitter – he stresses how important the little-known, hardly-played Catalan Damia Abella was to the squad last season – “Emilio Nsue, too, and Tomas Mejias. ‘Tommy’ was the second-choice goalkeeper but he always wanted the best for the dressing room.”
But communication and the loss of dressing room cohesion – hinted at by another Boro player, George Friend – are matters for a club captain. A telling line from Leadbitter is: “When you have 20 players pulling in the same direction, you succeed.”
The conversation returns to last season, to Charlton Athletic away in mid-March, when Karanka failed to join his players at The Valley.
“I can’t really comment,” Leadbitter says of Karanka’s disappearance. “Your manager’s not with you.
“Aggers [Agnew] gave the teamtalk. He was a calming influence, one of the biggest reasons we got up. We owe him a big thanks.
“I can only speak on behalf of our dressing room and one thing it did, it handled that situation very well. Certain people in that dressing room stepped forward – Jonathan [Woodgate], Stewy [Downing], young Ben [Gibson], George [Friend], Damia [Abella].
“The togetherness then, maybe that got us promoted, maybe that incident. We were very tight, even younger players who came on loan, like Jack Stephens who came back with Southampton last Saturday, he spoke of our tightness and how we made people welcome. We were tight and in my opinion that’s the main reason why we got promotion.”
Middlesbrough lost 2-0 at Charlton, five days after losing 1-0 at Rotherham. They were suddenly seven points behind Burnley and the club was shaken.
It is a long journey back from south London and Leadbitter recalls it: “I remember getting on the bus and turning my phone off.
“I knew what people from the outside would do, they’d try to tell you what’s gone on. There was silence, just silence. I think everyone was drained.
“We deservedly got beat, we played shocking – shocking. The players were mentally drained. We didn’t have any energy. We put all that effort into to getting where we were and then a lot of things go on in 24-48 hours and you feel drained.
“I just wanted a moment to reflect and calmly go about things. That came from Steve Agnew. There were still 30 points to play for. It takes experienced people then to stay calm, show unity.
“We came in the next day, Aitor came back. We dig in.
“Aitor came to the club to get it promoted. We got promoted. In that respect Aitor did his job. We got into the Premier League, since then we’ve found things difficult.”
There have been just five Premier league victories – two of them against bottom club Sunderland – and just 27 goals. Yet there were impressive-looking autumn draws at Arsenal, City and Leicester and on New Year’s Eve Leadbitter’s goal at Old Trafford had Boro 1-0 up with five minutes to go.
Karanka found things difficult since gaining promotion to the Premier League ()
They lost 2-1: “We couldn’t keep saying ‘well done’, believing you’re doing well while you’re losing. We got into a habit of saying that.”
Boro did not know it then, but they were in the midst of a run of 17 league games without a win.
“Everyone wants to play expansive football, it’s about getting a balance,” Leadbitter says. “Maybe we’ve not got the balance right. We have attacking players but I think Alvaro’s the only one who’s scored goals in the Premier League.”
Ultimately, he adds, Karanka left “because we were losing games.
“And when you’re losing, players have opinions – I like that. Maybe we haven’t had enough opinions this season, we’ve gone along with certain things. When you’re not winning, should there not be disagreements? I think there should be. Because obviously something’s not right.”
Leadbitter began to fear relegation in February, the month after Karanka criticised supporters and said publicly that he was unhappy with players signed such as Rudy Gestede and Patrick Bamford. “I don’t know why we haven’t signed our targets,” Karanka said.
Eyebrows were raised at the Rockliffe training ground where the mood had grown tense.
It had been different last August, when Negredo scored on his debut in a 1-1 draw with Stoke, when victory at Sunderland was followed by a 0-0 at West Brom. Boro were sixth in the table.
Leadbitter was at those games despite being injured and he travelled to Sunderland despite the personal emotions he feels on Wearside. It is where he grew up and where he made his debut back as a 17 year-old in 2003.
The Stadium of Light is also where Leadbitter’s father’s ashes lie. Brian Leadbitter was a Sunderland fanatic, proud to see his son play for the club. His ashes are under the pitch and nine years on son Grant finds it a traumatic place to visit. This season was no different. Few people understand or experience professional football in the manner of Grant Leadbitter.
That does mean all his opinions are correct – from afar Leadbitter’s backing of Agnew to be made permanent manager is not justified by results, and it is Liverpool away on Sunday.
But he is positive about chairman Steve Gibson’s weekend statement about winning the Championship next season. “And,” Leadbitter adds, “we don’t want to be talking about another missed opportunity when we’ve achieved that.” His experience on the pitch and off it, even in the local reservoir, show that football is not solely about 90 minutes and make Leadbitter’s voice one worth hearing.