THE BIG INTERVIEW
On his one-year anniversary as Preston North End manager, Simon Grayson talks to Dave Seddon
This time last year, Simon Grayson was enjoying some winter sunshine in Dubai in the aftermath of his harsh sacking by Huddersfield Town.
The phone call he got during his time in the United Arab Emirates lured him back into football management after just 25 days out of work.
Preston North End had come calling in their search for Graham Westley’s successor, with Grayson the No.1 choice.
He accepted the offer, and on Tuesday will celebrate 12 months in charge at Deepdale.
In that time, Grayson has turned a club he found at ‘rock bottom’ into one challenging for promotion.
The mood around Deepdale is buoyant, results are good and the PNE supporters have a genuine belief in what the 44-year-old is trying to achieve.
What a contrast to the weeks before his appointment when dark clouds hung over the club and a real fear existed that a relegation battle was looming.
Grayson talks happily and openly about the past year, with training done for the day as we chat in his office at North End’s Springfields training ground.
Next door in the canteen, the players polish off plates of lasagne and the back room staff share banter over a brew.
There is a buzz about the place, the focus on today’s big clash with Leyton Orient.
Recalling the events of February last year, Grayson said: “I was away on holiday after Huddersfield sacked me.
“I wanted to get away for a bit, get some sun and relax.
“When I was in Dubai I got a call from Peter Ridsdale about coming to Preston.
“My first thoughts were about getting back quickly into football because I had done that in joining Huddersfield after leaving Leeds.
“I had three or four days of my holiday left, so I asked my agent to speak to Peter and got Glynn Snodin to go and watch the game against Bournemouth.
“When I came back we got things done very quickly and was given the job.
“The biggest attraction in coming to Preston was the potential.
“From what I was seeing, the club had hit rock bottom and I didn’t think it could have got any lower from where it was this time last year.
“I had confidence in my ability that I could turn a big club round and hopefully go on to get them promoted, I was relaxed about that.
“After leaving Huddersfield I did think about whether to take a longer break. But my enthusiasm for football is such that I just want to work.
“I spoke to David Moyes about the opportunity at Preston and the club – I knew about the club in general but wanted a bit more insight from someone who had worked there.
“David spoke highly of the club, the stadium and the fan base, and was very complimentary about Trevor Hemmings.
“He also told me that I was better off in a job rather than waiting for one to come along.
“You can get a bit lost when you are out of the game, sometimes it’s nice to have a breather but three months out suddenly becomes six months and then 12 months.
“It was a difficult situation which I went into because of where Preston were in the league at the time.
“Things could quite easily have gone the other way and carried on in a downward spiral towards relegation.
“But I had a lot of faith in my ability that I could change it very quickly.
“I had seen the group of players play against Huddersfield in the League Cup and Snods had been very impressed on his scouting mission.
“When I looked through the squad in general I thought they were too good to get dragged into a scrap.
“The key was instilling some confidence back into them so we could finish the season in a half positive manner and look to build again in the summer.”
North End lost only three of the remaining 14 games last season with Grayson at the helm.
There was no magic formula to change a side drained of confidence into one which was walking tall come the season’s end.
“You hear things about what had happened previously, but ultimately I just wanted to go in and do what I had done previously in my other jobs,” said Grayson. “I wanted to get the players to enjoy coming in to training, get them smiling and get the best out of them.
“If you can man-manage your players, that is a major part of the job. If players are enjoying what they are doing, then they play for you.
“Given the quality they had too, I didn’t feel that I had to change the squad around. Sometimes you can go into a club and feel the need to make six or so loan signings.
“But not here, I just felt the players needed a bit of guidance and re-direction.
“We had the scope where we had a few points to play with and a couple of clear midweeks for me to have a close look at them on the training pitch.
“I was able to get a few ideas across very quickly and after a few sessions I realised they were a good group.
“Basically I got the players to show what they could do and prove people wrong because there was a negative atmosphere about the club.
“The players weren’t getting too much stick but obviously they were on the back of some poor results. We got them organised, got them playing 4-4-2 most weeks and gave them a job to do.
“In many ways it was going back to basics, being hard to beat and giving them the confidence to play in the final third.
“We gave everyone we played a good game and what was slightly different to how it is this year, is that teams came to Deepdale and played how they wanted.
“Teams now give us a lot more respect and will change their shape to play us.
“Last season, people saw us only as a mid-table side and would just get on with it.
“Personally speaking, it was good to get back in and the people at Preston made we feel very welcome.
“Being given the sack by Huddersfield hadn’t been something I had expected.
“They were where they had expected to be in the table, and I had no indication I was going into a meeting to be sacked.
“I do feel that I was harshly treated by my previous two clubs. But it doesn’t give me any extra incentive. My incentive is to do well for the club employing me.
“I have spent 20 odd years in football from when I was 16 at Leeds, and in that time I have had only four weeks unemployment.
“I love working, I know the perils of football management and when you get kicked you just get back up.” It was the summer months when Grayson started to stamp his mark on the Preston squad.
He signed Tom Clarke, Chris Humphrey and Kevin Davies in pre-season, and has continued to gradually do business as this campaign has progressed.
The additions to the back room staff were also a big part of his planning.
Grayson said: “There couldn’t be major changes because not too many of the lads were out of contract.
“But the ones we put on the transfer list moved out and more went on loan.
“It has been a gradual process and I think that was something which the club needed.
“Over the last three, four or five years there has been too much dramatic change and not enough consistency from one season to the next.
“Whatever happens this season we have got a good squad to either compete in the Championship or if not, they are under contract to play in League One.
“What I realised when I first took over was that there wasn’t the staff behind the scenes that you need to be successful.
“There was no fitness coach, no chief scout, no IT lad to do the analysis – they are a big part of football now.
“The owner and Peter went out of their way to make sure we had the finances to bring those people in.
“Alan Kelly also came in full-time as goalkeeper coach, and having a good staff makes my job easier.
“We all work closely together – Snods, John Dreyer, Alan Kelly and Matt Jackson.
“In terms of the playing squad, we gathered two or three really good signings in the summer and then it was a case of how pre-season went.
“If others became available and we could get others out, then we could progress further.
“I genuinely think that if we had the squad as it stands at the moment at the start of the season, then we would definitely be in the top two, no question about it.
“But having this squad back in the summer wasn’t plausible, we have had to wait to change things around more.
“It’s not been a dramatic change of 10 in and 10 out, not an alarming change.
“We have done business when we can to raise the quality of the squad.”
So how does Grayson rate the progress made on the pitch and their current fourth place standing in the division?
He said: “In the summer with the squad we had then, I would have thought we would be around sixth place, whether just below or just above.
“I was probably thinking more along the lines of being in sixth, eighth or 10th place about this stage and ready to have a good run-in.
“But where we are now is where I feel we deserve to be, and there is plenty to play for still.
“It is going to be tight up there and full credit to the sides above us who have had some fantastic runs.
“Can they continue that? Can we keep on their coat tails and catch them up?
“We will see where it takes us. If it’s the play-offs, so be it, if we go up automatically that would be brilliant for everyone.
“If we don’t go up, we start again next season with what I think is a genuinely good squad.
“Over this season I think we have really grown as a squad and a team. There was a positive vibe all summer from the way in which we finished last season.
“Pre-season went well, we had the Liverpool game and then the big start against Wolves and Blackpool.
“Beating Blackpool in the early part of the season helped, that was a big night.
“I told the players before the game that someone could make themselves a Preston hero and legend for years to come.
“Tom Clarke has been that person and that victory in the first week of the season showed everyone what we could do and got everyone onside.”
Grayson speaks highly of club owner Trevor Hemmings who has backed him in his efforts to turn fortunes for the better.
There is not a huge amount of contact between the two, with Hemmings’ advisor Peter Ridsdale the link man.
“I have very little contact with him to be fair, Peter deals with him directly,” said Grayson.
“He’s in the Isle of Man and visits two or three times a week, but that is at the ground and rarely does he come up to Springfields.
“Sometimes I might see him at lunchtime before a Saturday home game.
“I do get messages through Peter from Mr Hemmings, saying ‘well done’ to the team and myself after a victory.
“He is very much in the background, but at the same time very much in the foreground in terms of his thinking of how the club is run.
“Over the last few years he has been in the background and stayed in the background, but is now a lot closer to the club than he has ever been.”
The rare time that Grayson gets away from North End is precious to him. He is a keen music fan and likes a round of golf when the weather allows.
“On a Monday and Thursday I will go and watch my son train at Blackburn,” said Grayson.
“I will watch him play on a Saturday morning – our games permitting – for the Under-16s or on a Sunday morning for the Under-15s.
“I like my music and enjoy going out to concerts – I’m out and about with a few bands that I know.
“Going to gigs is a good way of switching off but you will always find football fans who like to talk about football!
“I’m good friends with the lads in the Kaiser Chiefs who are a great band.
“I don’t switch off from football very often but I’m not totally engrossed in it like some people who watch Spanish, Italian, German and French games all weekend.
“I do watch a few games but most of all I like to watch my son play his matches.”
Grayson comes from a sporting family, his younger brother Paul the coach of Essex CCC and formerly a one-day England international and an all-rounder with Yorkshire and Essex.
He played cricket to a high standard himself, before deciding on a career in football, one which started as an apprentice at Leeds.
Said Grayson: “I played cricket at Under-16s level for Yorkshire Schools.
“I had an opportunity to go to Yorkshire but in my last year at school I decided to go down the football route.
“Paul did the opposite, he had trials for Leeds and Middlesbrough before opting for cricket.
“People say that Paul chose the wrong sport and Paul tells me that I made the right choice because I have made more money!
“It would have been interesting to see how far we could have gone in one another’s sports. When we were growing up, I was always more football minded and Paul was more cricket minded.
“We are very supportive of each other and the first to take the mickey of one another.
“If I scored an own goal or he was out for a first-ball duck, we’d be straight on the phone to have a laugh.
“We are close in age – I’m 15 months older – and we pushed each other as kids which set the level for where we are at now.”