THERE might be 16 points separating them in the Championship table, but Leo Hjelde insists the Sunderland squad he has just joined is every bit as good as the Leeds United one he has just left.

Hjelde swapped Elland Road for the Stadium of Light on a permanent basis last month, signing a four-and-a-half year contract with the Black Cats.

The defender has left a Leeds side sitting in third position, just one point off the automatic-promotion spots, for a Sunderland team who are eighth, a point adrift of the play-off places.

But while Leeds have been battling for a top-two spot all season, Hjelde does not feel they are markedly superior to his new employers.

“If you look at the Sunderland squad compared to the one at Leeds, I don’t really think there’s any difference in terms of quality,” said Hjelde, who made his Black Cats debut at left-back in Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Middlesbrough. “The biggest difference is probably the age of the squad.

“We probably don’t have as much experience here. But the quality of the boys is definitely right up there. It’s unbelievable really, and that’s the reason why the club has this philosophy of signing young, exciting talent. The squad is really good, I’m very pleased with what I’ve come in to.”

Hjelde has left a Leeds squad packed with experience, with the likes of Liam Cooper, Sam Byram and Patrick Bamford all playing a prominent role in the club’s ongoing attempts to reclaim a place in the Premier League.

Given that he does not turn 21 until late August, his youth made him something of an outlier at Leeds, but he would not even figure in a list of the five or six youngest players getting regular first-team action at Sunderland.


The Black Cats have the youngest average squad age in the Championship, with Hjelde admitting the club’s increased reliance on youngsters was one of the key attractions that persuaded him to move to Wearside.

“I spoke with the club before moving, and had a good chat with the gaffer as well, and the philosophy at the club is playing young talent, and I think that’s really exciting,” said Hjelde. “If you look at the team, there’s not many players that are over 25 so there’s a lot of potential to grow and develop together. It’s a great dressing room to come into, and that’s one of the reasons why I signed as well.”

Hjelde found himself playing behind another former Leeds player in the shape of Jack Clarke at the weekend, having lined up against the 23-year-old in training last week.

The Norwegian, who is the son of former Nottingham Forest defender Jon Olav Hjelde, knows which he prefers, and has sympathy for whichever opposition full-back finds himself charged with the task of keeping Clarke in check in a match setting.

“I’ve trained against Jack now, and if I was playing against him in a game, I think it would be a case of praying to God really,” he said. “He’s brilliant. It’s great to know you’ve got a player like that, where you can give him the ball in tight positions and he will do some magic with it.

“It made my job easy really – I could stay back and do my job at left-back, knowing that Jack was there in front of me doing his stuff.”

Hjedle slotted in at left-back in the absence of the injured Aji Alese and Dennis Cirkin, with his presence in the side enabling Trai Hume to switch back to his more natural position at right-back.

In an ideal world, Hjedle sees himself as a centre-half, but having spent the first half of the season playing predominantly with Leeds’ Under-21s, he is hardly going to complain about being asked to fill in on the left of the back four.

“My preferred position is centre-back,” said the Scandinavian. “But listen, I’ll play anywhere. If the gaffer wants me to play striker, I’ll play striker. For me, it’s just about getting game time and being able to get a spot in the team.

“With the injuries at left-back, the gaffer told me straight away, ‘You’ll slot in at left-back and compete for a position there’. That was very pleasing to hear because I’d been without first-team games for quite a bit of time. We spoke about that, and how we play, being brave and things like that. He made me have a good feeling about the club.”

Hjelde’s goal now is to hold down a place in Sunderland’s starting line-up, and help his new side force their way into the play-off positions.

“The fact Sunderland will be challenging for promotion is one of the reasons I came here, and then it’s the way the club is moving forward as well,” he said. “Obviously, if we can push our way into the play-offs, that would be brilliant, and that’s the goal of the club. Hopefully, I can contribute to that.”