GRANT LEADBITTER has been around the footballing block long enough to know a strong group when he sees one.
Given the fact that the Middlesbrough captain has worked under some big and demanding characters in football, with Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane being two names which immediately spring to mind, his views carry extra validity.
Of the current Boro crop he is leading, he is sure upon one thing – that his team-mates are made of the right stuff.
He knows that he and his comrades won’t just be playing for the club, its staff and fans when they stride out against promotion rivals Brighton at a sold-out Riverside Stadium this lunchtime in a match which is being billed as the £170m golden ticket game.
Or let’s be honest, cup final with the prize to the victors of Premier League football being incalculable on many levels.
Crucially, they will also be playing for each other, with the esprit de corps fostered among Boro’s players in two tumultuous campaigns plainly of the special variety, according to the club’s on-pitch leader.
Leadbitter and co have already been through plenty in the past two seasons. Good and bad, but mostly good. From highs at the Etihad Stadium and Old Trafford and the pride of Anfield to the lows of Wembley, Craven Cottage and The Valley.
Yet it is in those painful, difficult moments that you find out about your team-mates and who possesses the character and fortitude to go again.
Boro’s seasonal fates may be in the balance, but Leadbitter – not one for hyperbole and as down-to-earth as it gets for a captain – believes that the current dressing-room vibe at the club is no ordinary one.
It’s his view that the togetherness is such that friendships have been brokered for life, long after the current Boro group have hung up their boots. Although it would be clearly be nice if those meetings in future years did involve a reunion dinner or two heralding the success of the class of 2015-16.
Leadbitter, who famously held a gathering at his house for players and their families after a defeat at Cardiff back in the autumn when Boro were toiling, said: “You get a group of lads in the dressing room and sometimes you don’t get on. It happens at 90 per cent of the dressing rooms in the country, I would say.
“But there’s one or two football clubs where dressing rooms are strong and this one is.
“It is always easier when you have good friends in the dressing room and you get on as when the chips are down, you have to look at them and dig in.
“I want to be part of something special with this group of players in the dressing room as there’s good people here. A lot of players just say that; but trust me there’s a lot of good players and good people in the dressing room and I am sure we will stay in contact for a long time.
“We have gone through a lot together and I am sure that benefits us.
“The group has always bounced back in the last two years. Credit to the players who were here last year, they deserve credit for us being in the position we are in.
“The new players have bought into the same thing.”
“We have had a few disappointments earlier this season. But we always bounce back as we are a good group and when you have strong characters in the dressing room, it does help and you need them.”
A little bit of local knowledge also does not go amiss, with the smattering of Teessiders in the Boro playing ranks ensuring that the dressing room is also under no illusions just who they and what they are playing for.
This is Boro’s seventh season away from the top-flight – and in a season when the local economy suffered a huge blow with the closure of the SSI steelworks in Redcar, Leadbitter fully knows the importance of providing a lift.
Leadbitter added: “We have Ben Gibson, Jonathan Woodgate and Stewart Downing who are from the area. They know the area and feed stuff into the dressing room which is good and only benefits the group.
“They are aware because they know families who have been through it and we do see and hear things around the place and there would be nothing better for the club to go up, especially what has happened over the past 12 months with the unemployment and stuff.”