There are few managers in the modern who can show a resume as stellar as Simon Grayson. In the 15 years since retiring as a player, Grayson has managed seven clubs and gained promotion four times. He is a turn around specialist in that he is able to go into a club in trouble, grab it by the scruff of its neck and drag it towards promotion within a season or two. It’s remarkable to think that he has managed all this at only 50 which in management is still relatively young. As an accomplished defender who plied his trade at Blackpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and his beloved Leeds United, it’s not hard to see where he gets his self drive and determination from.
Grayson may be humble about what he has achieved but is hopeful of one day getting a shot at managing in the Premier League, likely through gaining promotion from the Championship but something he certainly deserves. We caught up with him recently in what was a fascinating interview about his playing career, his move into management and of course what it felt like walking out that tunnel as Leeds manager. Enjoy!
Backofthenet: You came through the ranks at a Leeds United side that included the likes of Eric Cantona, Gary Speed, Gordon Strachan, David Batty and Gary McAllister. As a young player, what was the biggest thing you learned from those players that helped you as a player?
Simon Grayson: Gordon Strachan had a massive effect on me as a young pro at Leeds. His attitude to training, preparation for games and his desire to win were things I took with me into my own career. He would watch our reserve games and after he would give me praise but also some constructive criticism. His biggest advice was always to try your best, work hard every day and enjoy Football even through tough times as it’s a job so many people would love to swap places with you.
BOTN: You moved to Leicester in March 1992 and established yourself at Filbert Street winning the League Cup and player of the season in 1997. That team was managed by the legendary Martin O’Neill. What did you learn from O’Neill during your time working with him that you have now taken into your own managerial career?
SG: One of Martins’ biggest strengths was his man management skills. Yes, he understood the game tactically, but he knew how to get the best out of each individual and then put this into the team environment. Certain players would need a rollicking and others an arm round them. He created a spirit in the dressing room that we would look after each other on the pitch, work for each other and run through a brick wall for him as he had our backs as well. This is something that I definitely took into my managing career.
BOTN: Successful spells at Aston Villa and Blackburn followed before you spent nearly two seasons out on loan at Sheffield Wednesday, Stockport County, Notts County and Bradford City before finally securing a permanent move to Blackpool where you finished your playing days. That must have been a disappointing spell in your career. What positives did you draw from those loan moves? Did you consider calling it a day as you moved from club to club?
SG: At Blackburn, Graeme Souness was the manager and had his own view on players which I understood but I didn’t agree with how he treated certain players who he didn’t pick. A number of us were forced to train away from the first team. For two years I went out on loan just to play games as I didn’t want to just pick my money up for doing nothing. It was a tough time, but I never thought about packing football in as I loved football and felt I had plenty to give to someone. It certainly made me stronger as a person and made me want to enjoy my last few years as a player. After my contract expired, I went to Blackpool and played over 100 games winning the Football League Trophy with them (in 2003-20004).
BOTN: Your first managerial role was at Blackpool which came about in a fairly unusual way. You were working as the reserve boss and had an offer to move to another club as assistant manager. But when you told Blackpool owner Karl Oyster of your desire to leave, he refused as he was planning on sacking then manager Colin Hendry and appoint you instead. Did that cause any issues with Colin who up until that point had been your manager?
SG: I don’t think Colin had any problems with me as I’d spoke to him about leaving and I certainly wasn’t doing anything without him knowing. I really didn’t have any real desire to be a manager at that point. When I was given the caretaker role, I was still unsure whether I would be comfortable doing it or be any good at it.
BOTN: How challenging was it to transition from being a player to becoming the boss at the same club?
SG: The advantage of the transition I had from player to caretaker was that I had been doing the reserves and still playing so the players were comfortable with it and used to it. The hardest part was dropping close mates and releasing players in the summer. But I knew I had to be ruthless and make unpopular decisions if I was going to make it as a manager.
BOTN: You led Blackpool to the playoffs and promotion in your first full season as a manager. How did you go about taking a relegation-threatened side and turning them into promotion candidates? How influential was the decision to bring in Tony Parkes from Blackburn as your assistant in that turn around?
SG: Tony was very influential for me and probably the best decision I made. Even though I’d played a lot of games, I felt I needed someone who had some great experience as a coach/manager alongside me to guide and advise me. Together with Steve Thompson, we recruited some good players and we created a good team spirit; something I had learnt from Martin O’Neil. We worked hard in training and had a strong desire to win matches. If as a manager you can get all these things right then you have a good chance of being successful.
BOTN: You left Blackpool to become Leeds United manager in December 2008. As a fan of the club, going back to manage Leeds must have been a surreal moment for you. How did it feel leading the team out in front of those fans for the first time?
SG: Getting the opportunity to manage Leeds United was an unbelievable feeling. Even though they were in League One and Blackpool were in the Championship, I had no hesitation in going. To walk down the tunnel for my first game on Boxing Day vs. Leicester and follow in the footsteps of some of the greats of Leeds like Don Revie and Howard Wilkinson was a moment I will never forget.
BOTN: You must be happy to see Leeds promoted this season to the Premier League after a long absence?
SG: Yes, to see Leeds promoted this season is fantastic and along time in coming. The Club, City and supporters have been through a lot of dark times over the last 20 years but they are now back in the Premier League and hopefully they stay there for a long time.
BOTN: Leeds were promoted to the Championship in 2010 under your leadership and still have the club’s third-best points-per-match record of all-time, only behind Marcelo Bielsa and David O’Leary. What are your best memories of managing the club?
SG: I loved my time at Leeds even when things weren’t going too well. To support, play and manage the club is something I’m so proud of. Getting promoted on the last day of the season in front of 38,000 was the ultimate highlight. Seeing what it meant to the supporters when we were celebrating on the pitch after the final whistle and the manor how we won (going down to 10 men and 1 nil down to then win 2-1) was certainly a rollercoaster ride for everyone and one of relief as well. Winning at Old Trafford as a League One team in the FA Cup is certainly up there with the best moments as well.
BOTN: What about the Leeds fans?
The connection I had with the supporters is another great memory. They enjoyed how we played, the spirit we had and ultimately the pride that we showed playing for them and the club. To get so close to the play offs in our first season in the Championship was a feeling of disappointment really given we really thought we had enough quality in the squad to get the team close to going back to the Premier League
BOTN: A month after leaving Leeds, you joined fellow Yorkshire club Huddersfield Town, and again got them promoted to the Championship. But as a manager, how much of an effect does joining a rival have on your decision over whether to take a job?
SG: Honestly, I didn’t worry about it. I knew some people might have a problem with it but if you win matches and ultimately get the team promoted then no one should have any complaints about it.
BOTN: You took over at Preston in February 2013 with the club in real danger of being relegated from League One. But in less than three years you had transformed the club and managed to get them promoted to the Championship. Joe Garner played a key role in those squads scoring over 20 goals a season in both the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 campaigns. How important as a manager is it to find a striker who you can rely on to get 20+ goals per season and what did you do personally with Joe to turn around his time at Preston and make him into a prolific scorer?
SG: Strikers at any level of football are so important as they win matches for you. To have someone you and his teammates can rely on to put away the chances can be the difference between being an average team and a successful one. Joe had been at a few big clubs without making it really work but he was someone who I knew would work hard for the team but also put his head and body in where it hurts to score a goal. Joe had some good teammates who could create the chances for him as well, people like (Paul) Gallagher, (Daniel) Johnson, (Callum) Robinson and others knew what kind of service Joe liked and they had the quality to do this.
BOTN: Given your history of turning clubs around and gaining promotion, the challenge of doing the same at Sunderland must have been appealing. But you joined at a very weird time at the club, which was all captured in the recent Netflix documentary called ‘Sunderland Till I Die’. Clearly things weren’t / aren’t right at Sunderland, but just how difficult was it to manage in those circumstances with every move you made captured on film?
SG: The documentary was already in place when I moved to Sunderland. I gave them certain rules where and when they could film but as a documentary they were always wanting more and did not want to miss out on things. I’m sure the players didn’t like the cameras there as I didn’t. I knew going to Sunderland wasn’t going to be an easy job, but I certainly backed myself to do well. It probably wasn’t until I was there a week or so that I realize how much negativity and unrest there was at the club.
BOTN: There is a lot of talk that Sunderland is a club with deep rooted problems with professionalism, and an ingrained drinking culture that a succession of managers have been unable to break. Would you agree with that assertion, and if so, given time and patience how would you go about transforming the club?
SG: As a manager you go to a club with your own ideas and beliefs which you hope you can get the players to buy into but Sunderland seemed to have problems with a group of players who didn’t want to be there or some had lost the drive and desire to turn it around. With Chris Coleman following me and not able to change the attitude and culture around proved that it wasn’t the managers fault but deeper lying problems. The only way of fixing this would be to give the manager time to change it around rather than keep blaming the manager and changing manager every time a result doesn’t go the way the fans wanted it to go. I genuinely believe I would have been successful there if I was given more time but as we know in this day and age time isn’t always something you get now.
BOTN: Moving on, there is a school of thought that says the game is “better” today thanks to advances in sports science, nutrition etc. as well as better quality pitches. Do you agree with that assertion?
SG: I think that today’s players have the best opportunities to be a success due to the things you have mentioned but I also believe that the modern day footballer also has everything done for them and therefore sometimes doesn’t take responsibility for things like players did in the past. They wait for problems to be solved by the manager rather than trying to solve them themselves. They don’t like criticism as much as past players did and anytime there is a problem, an agent seems to have to get involved.
BOTN: How do you feel you would have fared as a player today?
SG: I think I would have been fine as I would have taken my time playing in the 90s into the modern way of preparing for games and playing.
BOTN: Over the past few years, we have seen a growing trend towards talented younger players leaving the English game such as Jadon Sancho and more recently Jude Bellingham, in favour of a move to Germany. Why do you think this is so appealing for these youngsters? Is the belief that they are leaving due to lack of playing time correct or is it more to do with the coaching they can get abroad?
SG: I think it may be a bit of both but also when one player goes and is successful then others then think more positively about going and venturing abroad. In the past, only a handful of players left to go abroad with only a few successful which in turn made others think less so of moving but now that has changed, and more may do it in the future.
BOTN: Before we turn to our fan questions, it’s fair to say that you’ve had a very successful career as a manager with several promotions with different clubs under your belt. That said you are often overlooked for the vacant jobs in the Premier League. Do you think that there is a bias towards appointing foreign coaches in that division? And Is the pathway to becoming a Premier League manager for English coaches therefore restricted to gaining promotion with a club from the Championship?
SG: There are many coaches including myself that believe a lot of English/British coaches are overlooked for jobs in the Premier League and that the only way you get to manage there is by taking teams up. You only have to look at people like Sean Dyche, Eddie Howe and Chris Wilder who have managed in the Premier League by getting their clubs promoted as opposed to getting approached for jobs while they were managing in the Championship or League One.
BOTN: Finally let’s move on to some fan questions. Of the players you played with or against, who do you think would be most likely to thrive today?
SG: Most of the players I played with and against while I was at Leicester and Aston Villa in the Premier League would have all thrived today as they all had the basic ingredients the top players have now i.e. hard work , desire, resilience and ultimately quality with and without the ball.
BOTN: Having managed clubs in the ascendancy, gaining promotion with Leeds and Huddersfield, as well as at the other end of the table, fighting in and around the foot of the table with Preston and Sunderland, do you change your approach depending on the circumstances? And if so, what are the differences between coaching a good team to success, vs. drilling a struggling team?
SG: As a coach you have to be able to be adaptable to where a club is at when you take over or slightly change things when you move up a Division through promotion to deal with playing against bigger clubs and better players. You may also change your philosophies depending on the players you have available to you. For example, at Leeds we had a really attacking team with players like (Jermaine) Beckford, (Robert) Snodgrass, (Max) Gradel, (Luciano) Bechio and (Jonathan) Howson so our intent was to score more goals than the opposition. Where at Preston, when we got promoted to the Championship, we had to be hard to beat and play more on the counterattack.
BOTN: I read that you were in the running to be boss at Bolton. Is there any truth you were interested in that role? And if you are looking to get back into management, what kind of role would most appeal to you?
SG: I’m definitely looking to get back into managing again when the opportunity comes along whether here or abroad. At 50, with nearly 700 games and 4 promotions on my CV, I still feel I have a lot to give and I certainly have the desire to add to the games and promotions. When the day comes that I can no longer get a managers’ job then I would like to stay in the game in some capacity whether as an assistant to a younger manager/coach, or in recruitment /scouting.
BOTN: Thank you Simon and all the best for the future!
You can follow Simon on Instagram.
Interview by Rob Latham, UK correspondent for Back Of The Net. Follow him on Twitter.
Interview Contributions by Gordon Skinner.