The Leeds United manager, Simon Grayson, is reflecting on how his Elland Road tenure has surpassed Brian Clough's. "I said to the chairman: 'I've made it through more than 44 days,'" he says. "He told me I nearly didn't after the Hereford defeat!" He is fairly sure Ken Bates was joking.
Brian Clough might have considered himself damned from the day he walked into Elland Road but he had nothing on Grayson, the latest individual to take on the mantle Clough did not care to keep and who, with Bates' dark wit, a mere 17 players and an overwhelming sense of expectation for company, walked through the same doors three months ago that Clough had marched out of 35 long years ago.
A cold February night at Hereford's Edgar Street, a 2-0 defeat, 2,000 of your owns fans in attendance, with a fair few of those shouting "we're shit and we're sick of it" and questioning the players' fitness to wear the famous white shirt which Don Revie first introduced to make Leeds look like Real Madrid. Cloughie would have had some choice words for an evening like that. "The night served a purpose but when your own fans are saying that about you, it hurts people," Grayson says now.
Hurt: such a familiar companion for the club since the days when Revie gave the beginnings of a football heritage to Leeds, so much a rugby league town before his arrival in 1961 that it had three major teams playing the sport. Somehow the seeds of self destruction have been there in every side which has risen to prominence since. The more brutal aspects of the Revie days give rise to a loathing for the club which lives to this day for some, even those who never saw Bremner, Giles and Charlton play. The hubristic spending splurge of the 1990s which saw Milan at Elland Road in the Champions League one minute and Cheltenham in what used to be called the Third Division, the next. Who but Leeds could then have hired Dennis Wise, a representation of so many of their old traits, and then been bought for £10m by Bates, who has put money into the club where others failed but who so polarises opinion, too? Grayson has quietly started to build a structure out of the mayhem but a recent discussion on the LeedsUnitedMad website about the club's current predicament captured it all best. One fan asked was there light at the end of the tunnel. Someone emailed back a photograph of an onrushing train.
Leeds have often looked to their own to manage them back to the big time: Billy Bremner and Allan Clarke, individuals perhaps too steeped in what Revie stood for to rid Leeds of the old image; Eddie Gray, who challenged the Revie orthodoxy and attempted to develop a more aesthetic outlook; Gary McAllister, who did much the same but at the expense of necessary muscle. Grayson is a Leeds man too, a schoolboy fan signed as a trainee by Gray at the age of 14 (on the same day as Gary Speed), given his debut by Bremner three years later and released by Howard Wilkinson by the age of 21. But he is an individual with feet both in the Leeds present and the past – a modern manager with a reputation built on restoring Blackpool to the second tier and keeping them there but one whose knowledge of Bremner helps him to deconstruct what one fans' website described as the ''Saint Cloughy versus Dirty Leeds'' dynamic which David Peace works with in The Damned United. Bremner, such anaethema to Clough, was one of the hard men who, as Grayson euphemistically puts it could "mix up his game" and bend the rules. But he was a footballer of extraordinary talents, too, and for Grayson the mention of his name conjures images of the Scot dropping into the Elland Road bootroom as he, Speed and others were finishing up their cleaning jobs as trainees.
"We would be ready for home at 4 o'clock and Billy would bring a ball out and the next thing we knew we would be back on a training pitch having a game of 5-a-side and we wouldn't be away till seven,'' he says."You could just sit in the physios' room and canteen and listen to the stories all the time. He was so enthusiastic about football, lived for football." But Clough's caricature seemed to stick. "People get judged on a persona they can't get away from." The same might be said of Revie who, for all Clough's hatred, sent out a side who were simply mesmeric in the spring of 1972, their footballing apotheosis – destroying Manchester United 5-1 and Southampton 7-0 on consecutive weekends.
Grayson, who grew up with the image of Frank Worthington on his bedroom wall, discovered a Leeds squad just as stuck in the past as well as those who abhor the club. Yes, he says, he did find fear around Leeds United at the sheer weight of expectation that comes with performing before 2,000 fans at Edgar Street and 33,500 when Leicester City visited Elland Road on Boxing Day. "You have to be a special type of person to play for this football club, to perform to the standards that are required," Grayson says. "People look back just , a short time ago to that Champions League semi-final and that's always going to be around the neck of players." Allied to which is the vitriol which the club have been stuck with, long since the days of domination. "People resented the kind of domination we had. Manchester United and Chelsea experienced that too," he reflects. "For whatever reason they have taken pleasure in our decline."
All around the club are hallmarks of that past, from Leeds' grandiose Thorp Arch training ground with its sweeping driveway and electronic gates, sold as the club's fortunes crashed and leased back now, to the images in its foyer of the players the club were forced to sell as they plummeted – Scott Carson, Alan Smith, Jonathan Woodgate. None of this is new to Grayson. Every day at Blackpool he walked into work past a bronze statue of Stan Mortensen, hero of the "Matthews final'' triumph, and watercolours in the foyer at Bloomfield Road of 'Mort', Matthews, Eddie Shimwell et al, celebrating that famous afternoon. While some managers would take down those images and start afresh, Grayson is trying the strategy he employed at Bloomfield Road: a bit of reverse psychology and making use of the past. "You want to get the players back to what the club achieved in the past and be a part of history," he says. "I tell them: 'You be the new breed of folklore heroes," he says.
For all his detractors Bates, with whom Grayson speaks by telephone most days, has made a difference, helping Leeds to rebuild the youth system from which Revie was the first manager to benefit and which was one of the first assets to go as the club slipped from Championship, depriving Leeds of Aaron Lennon, James Milner, Carson and Smith. He has also ensured that prime young talents Fabian Delph and Jermaine Beckford did not leave in January and though Grayson has been limited to one permanent signing – Richard Naylor from Ipswich, who has ably assumed the captain's role in Frazer Richardson's 12-week absence – a heart-to-heart that night at Hereford does seem to have been a watershed. Leeds have won five and drawn two since, a run which has put them 10 points from the second automatic promotion place, with a game in hand over incumbents Peterborough, and assigned huge significance to today's home match with MK Dons, historically speaking mere striplings but one place and four points above them.
Grayson plays down talk of automatic promotion and you can't blame him with the kind of eternal optimism which his players will be contending with today, as on any other Saturday. When Leeds were relegated from the Championship in May 2007, there were 3,000 subscribers to the club's TV station. Today there are 15,000, while only three clubs in the land – Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal – had more unique visits to their website last year. Leeds still boast the largest away following of any of the 72 Football League clubs – 2,480 on average.
All evidence, Grayson contends, that hopes of the big time are not so forlorn. "Somebody eventually is going to bring the club back to where it belongs," he says. "You feel other managers before you have tried to do that but that maybe you're the right person to do that – that we could be back in Premier League in four or five years, or maybe sooner, because there is the potential with the fan base and the size of club." He was not so absorbed enough in the Leeds past to feel the need join his players on a private viewing of The Damned United film on Thursday evening and has not read Peace's book yet. But the words of Revie, a man who arrived to find Leeds on their uppers in the old Division Two before rebuilding them, might provide most sustenance as Leeds seek their destiny. "The history of football abounds with stories of clubs meeting with success when the days looked darkest," Revie once said. "In every instance it was to be found that the people in charge were prepared to grasp success when the tide began to flow their way."
From Revie to Gray, Wilkinson to Grayson The 17 managers who have ridden the Elland Road roller-coaster since 1961
*DON REVIE (1961-74)
Division Two 1964; Division One 1969, 1974; FA Cup 1972; League Cup 1968
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup 1968, 1971
740 matches in charge, 394 wins.
The Godfather who dragged the club out of Division Two, changed their kit to all-white, and produced a team which mixed artistry with a bit too much devilry for most tastes. Famous for his dossiers, his superstitions, and taking the players carpet bowling. Allegations of bribery have tainted his memory but there is no denying the achievements of his reign. Left to manage England.
*BRIAN CLOUGH (1974)
7 matches, 1 win
Shock appointment, and an even more shocking exit. Pay-off set him up for life.
*JIMMY ARMFIELD (1974-78)
193 matches, 87 wins
Suffered controversial European Cup final defeat to Bayern Munich in 1975.
*JOCK STEIN (1978)
10 matches, 4 wins
Lasted only a day longer than Clough before resigning to manager Scotland.
*JIMMY ADAMSON (1978-80)
98 games, 35 wins
Unable to arrest slow decline
*ALLAN CLARKE (1980-82)
84 games, 27 wins
First in of three former Revie players to take over, could not prevent relegation.
*EDDIE GRAY (1982-85)
157 games, 57 wins
Unable to inspire promotion.
*BILLY BREMNER (1985-88)
143 games, 58 wins
Took team to 1987 FA Cup semi-final.
*HOWARD WILKINSON (1988-96) Division Two 1990; Division One 1992.
411 games, 178 wins
Returned Leeds to the top flight then, with Eric Cantona providing the final impetus, lifted the last title before the creation of the Premier League.
*GEORGE GRAHAM (1996-98)
95 games, 37 wins
Took the club back in to Europe, then left to manage Tottenham.
*DAVID O'LEARY (1998-2002)
203 games, 101 wins
Put his faith in youth and reached Champions League semi-final.
*TERRY VENABLES (2002-03)
42 games, 16 wins
Undermined by a firesale of players
*PETER REID (2003)
22 games, 6 wins
Evaded relegation, but fired after poor start to following season. Eddie Gray, as caretaker, could not prevent drop.
*KEVIN BLACKWELL (2004-06)
115 games, 44 wins
Fired by Ken Bates after play-off loss.
*DENNIS WISE (2006-08)
68 games, 30 wins
Could not prevent drop to third tier.
*GARY MCALLISTER (2008)
50 games, 25 wins
Lost in play-off final, then began badly.
*SIMON GRAYSON (2008-present)
17 games, 10 wins
Has taken team into play-off zone.