Leo Hjelde explains Sunderland and Leeds United difference as defender recalls what Michael Beale told him

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New Sunderland signing Leo Hjelde says the squad is similar to the one he left at Leeds United in terms of the players’ qualities.

The 20-year-old defender signed for the Black Cats during the final week of the transfer window following a two-and-a-half year spell at Leeds - which included a loan stint at Rotherham. The Whites were only relegated from the Premier League last season and are fighting to win automatic promotion this term, yet Hjelde doesn’t think Sunderland are far off that level.

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“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 the defender. "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 into.”

After making just one Championship appearance for Leeds in the first half of the season, Hjelde was looking to move in January and jumped at the chance to sign for Sunderland. The Black Cats were trying to sign a left-sided defender following injuries to Aji Alese, Dennis Cirkin and Niall Huggins, with Hjelde able to play at full-back and centre-back.

“It was a sharp turnaround,” admitted Hjelde when asked about his move to Wearside. “I think I got the message a day before I signed here, so it was a quick decision. The first thing I did was go on the phone to my dad, and he just said, ‘There’s no way you’re not signing’. He was very pleased for me, and for me, it was an easy decision. I knew of the club, knew of the size and how the club did last season. I played against the guys, so for me, it was a very easy move and transition. There was never a doubt.”

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He added: “I was waiting for a move. It was just about being patient, really. I was getting game time with the under-21s at Leeds, so that meant I was fit whenever the chance came. Obviously, it came quite late, but I’m really happy that it happened, and I’m ready to crack on.”

Sunderland’s aforementioned injuries meant Hjelde came straight into the Black Cats’ starting XI against Middlesbrough on Sunday, playing the full match at the Riverside as Michael Beale’s side came from behind to earn a 1-1 draw.

When asked about his initial conversations with Beale, Hjelde replied: “With the injuries at left-back, he 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 were just speaking about that and how we play, being brave and things like that. He made me have a good feeling about the club. It was good.”