Dave Seddon talks to Preston North End manager Simon Grayson about his three years at the Deepdale helm
Simon Grayson has done plenty of talking during his decade as a manager but nothing will have rivalled the speech he delivered to the Preston players on May 3 last year.
He rose to his feet at the front of the team coach as it travelled away from Colchester, launching into a rallying call to a group of players who had just seen automatic promotion slip from their grasp.
Grayson had the task of lifting the squad off the floor in time for the play-offs, which were starting just a few days later.
To those who heard it, the speech was Churchillian in nature – and history shows that it hit home.
Three weeks later, Grayson and his players were soaked in champagne on the Wembley pitch, celebrating a 4-0 win over Swindon in the play-off final.
The 46-year-old Yorkshireman is a level-headed man, not usually allowing himself to get too down after a defeat and not too far the other way after a victory.
But even he admits to the huge gulf in emotions between that sorry day in Essex and the glory of Wembley.
On Thursday, Grayson celebrated three years as North End manager – in the current hire-them-and-fire-them climate of football management, that represents long service.
We spoke at length at PNE’s Springfields training ground to reflect on his time in charge and it was not long before the subject turned to Colchester. Grayson said: “Colchester was a very low point.
“Having been that close to automatic promotion and seen it slip away, I don’t think I had ever felt that low after a game before. That feeling had to disappear quickly, I did the post-match press and got on the bus to go back to the airport knowing I had to pick the lads up.
“Before we got to the airport, I stood up on the bus and what I said to the players was a bit of a rallying call but also a plea to them to believe in themselves.
“I wanted them to believe that what they had been doing were the right things and that one result should not change our outlook and mentality.
“That just had to be said. I didn’t want the players getting on the plane and then having the next day off still thinking about what had happened at Colchester.
“We had to nail it, put it to bed – we couldn’t do anything about it, however much we would have liked to.
“The only thing we could affect was what was going to happen in the two legs against Chesterfield.
“It was something I knew I had to tell the players and those lads responded in the most positive manner.
“I had genuinely believed that we would win at Colchester to get automatic promotion.
“Sometimes we have to suffer disappointment and that disappointment can make the good days even better.
“Over the next three weeks, the players had a real steel and desire about them.
“We beat Chesterfield and then didn’t get ourselves carried away about the fact we had reached the final.
“The attitude was that we were going to Wembley to work. I made a conscious effort that all the build-up would be about going to work.
“When we went to Wembley a couple of days before the final, I told the lads that they could take all the pictures they wanted but I didn’t want to see anything on the internet.
“I couldn’t stop them but I hoped that they would respect my request and they did so.
“We weren’t there for a jolly-up, it wasn’t a day out for us.
“You saw the difference in mentality between our group and the Swindon group.
“We were there to win it and maybe they weren’t.”
A Wembley final would have been the last thing on Grayson’s mind when the call came from North End three years ago.
He was sunning himself in Dubai at the time, taking a holiday after being sacked by Huddersfield a couple of weeks earlier.
Grayson was on the Deepdale wanted list after the sacking of Graham Westley, the controversial Londoner sacked with PNE in 17th place and looking anxiously over their shoulder at the relegation zone.
“Peter Ridsdale rang me in Dubai. I knew him from when I was a young lad at Leeds and he was on the board there,” said Grayson.
“He basically hounded me to come. He chased me, kept ringing me about coming.
“I knew about the size of the club, where it had been not so long ago, I knew about the owner and his values.
“While I was in Dubai, I had 45 minutes on the phone to David Moyes, asking him about the club.
“Speaking to David gave me an insight of the club – he had done the job and knew the city.
“Ultimately, the decision I made to accept the job was down to me wanting to get back to work.
“I had only been out of work for two weeks or so but already I was getting restless.
“It is fashionable for managers to take a break these days but if you don’t watch it, the break can last a lot longer than envisaged.
“I didn’t want that to happen, I didn’t want to get forgotten about.
“It had to be the right club and Preston was.
“It is no secret that Glynn Snodin came to the Bournemouth game on the Saturday before I was appointed.
“By then I had more or less agreed to come but I wanted Snods to give me the seal of approval. He gave a glowing reference of the team. Tumble (John Dreyer) did brilliantly to win that game against a side who would get promoted a couple of months later.”
Grayson goes into his fourth year in charge with North End sitting rather nicely in the top half of the Championship.
Steadily, they are establishing themselves in the second tier and have surprised plenty of people – including some of their own fans – with a run over the last four months which has taken them from the foot of the table up to 11th place.
The progress made has pleased Grayson, who was quick to point out that many in the squad had not played at this level before.
Said Grayson: “The Championship has been everything I expected, it is relentless.
“In the early part of the season we got punished for little mistakes but credit to the players, they have adapted, worked hard and done everything we have asked them to do.
“We have achieved nothing yet but are certainly in a position at the moment which at the start of the season we would have taken.
“This season was always going to be difficult and we were never going to take the division by storm.
“We didn’t get too low when we were down in the bottom three because even then, I didn’t think we were playing too badly.
“Looking back to August and September, we got punished by Ipswich, Hull and Derby.
“We have learned from that period and adapted – we have got a fighting instinct in us.
“A lot of the lads hadn’t played above League One before, others had been on the outside of Championship squads without playing much.
“They have thought, ‘Right, we ‘re here now and we’re going to give it our best shot’.
“Certain individuals have surprised me with how well they have done, they have stuck their chest out and played well.
“Everything we have asked the lads to do, they have done it at 100%.
“If you were to ask them to run through a brick wall, they would do that.”
A player who was key to Preston’s promotion, Jermaine Beckford, is someone who Grayson has had to manage without this season.
The scorer of 18 goals last term – 15 of them from the end of February onwards – underwent knee surgery in September and is still rehabilitating.
Whether North End would be even higher up the table had Beckford been available, is something many supporters have debated,
Grayson would dearly have loved to have been able to call on the striker’s services this season – only fleetingly in August could he do so.
“We would probably have played a different style of football at times had Jermaine been fit,” he said.
“Maybe we wouldn’t be in the position we are but then again, we could have been higher because he could have taken some of the chances which we haven’t done.
“Jermaine is a player who can do something out of nothing, as Wembley proved.
“In games where it has been tight and we have missed the odd chance, he might have been on the end of things.
“There might have been occasions though, where playing him in the team would not have suited us.
“For example, if we wanted to be quite defensive in a 4-3-3 turning into a 4-5-1, I’m not sure where we could have fitted Jermaine in – unless he played as a lone striker, which he doesn’t enjoy doing.
“It is a fine balance but believe me, I would rather have had him available than not available.
“We could have had a few more points on the board but in saying that, we might have been a bit more open and other teams might have punished us if we had played two up front or had Jermaine playing on the right of a three.
“We want good players available to us and hopefully Jermaine is available soon.”
If there is a criticism which comes Grayson’s way from some supporters, it is the style of football.
North End are never going to be Barcelona and Grayson says they play to their strengths.
“We want to play a style of football which people enjoy watching,” he said.
“I have never been a manager where we throw it out from the back all the time, play through midfield and play tippy-tappy football. We will do whatever it takes to win matches, so if that means playing it up to the strikers, getting the best out of them and asking questions of the opposition’s back four, then we will do it.
“We will play when we get the chance to play.
“Certain players we have got in the team aren’t suited to playing another style of football.
“I look at other teams below us in the league, certain clubs have got better individuals and better footballers than we have got but look where they are in the table.
“So which is the right way and which is the wrong way?
“Over the course of time we want to play football in the right areas and entertain.
“But at times, you have to play to your strengths.”