Simon Hart: After two sackings in 12 months, Simon Grayson is on the up at Preston North End

Life Beyond the Premier League

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The Independent Football

Simon Grayson is sitting in his office at Preston North End’s training ground but his mind is drifting to Dubai. He is remembering a trip to the races there with Martin O’Neill, his old Leicester City manager, shortly after Grayson’s dismissal by Huddersfield Town in January 2013. It was his second sacking in 12 months and O’Neill’s words of encouragement then have stayed with him. “He said he’d followed my career and I’d done ever so well, and when people like him are telling you that it gives you a boost,” he recalls.

O’Neill was not alone in thinking highly of Grayson – this is a manager who has lifted Blackpool, Leeds United and Huddersfield out of League One – and within weeks he was taking over a Preston side 17th in that same division. Today they sit third, three points off the top, prior to Saturday’s visit to Sheffield United. “Given the squad we have put together and where we were last year [fifth], promotion has to be our No 1 aim,” the 45-year-old tells The Independent.

Both O’Neill and David Moyes had told Grayson that Preston was a great opportunity and for a manager who worked under Karl Oyston and Ken Bates, at Blackpool and Leeds respectively, the support of North End’s owner, Trevor Hemmings, has been particularly significant.

“The most important relationship has got to be with your owner and people working alongside him. I can’t speak highly enough of what the football club has done for us. There was a lot that needed changing – there wasn’t a great deal in place, no fitness coach, no chief scout – and they have backed me with it all.”

“In the last 18 months or so [Hemmings] has really got his mojo back [and] has cleared all the debt of the club, which is a rarity in football,” he adds. “His one big ambition is to get us at least into the Championship if not beyond.”

Grayson’s first task at Deepdale was to dispel the toxic atmosphere left by his predecessor, Graham Westley. “There was no affinity between the previous manager and supporters,” explains the Yorkshireman, whose own feeling for the club gained an added dimension with Sir Tom Finney’s death last February. “The response made you realise what a legend in the game Finney was but also what Preston North End are about. He will be looking down on us and, hopefully, he can do something for us this year.”

If Sir Tom is able to pull any celestial strings, Grayson’s wish is for “no more play-offs”. Last May’s semi-final loss to Rotherham was Preston’s ninth play-off failure but hopes of automatic promotion this time have been boosted by a 10-game unbeaten run, prior to Wednesday’s Johnstone’s Paint Cup defeat by Walsall.

“There are four of us pulling away a bit and any two could get automatic promotion,” says Grayson, whose team have the division’s meanest defence. “Last year we conceded a lot of goals late on. Our game management has been a lot better.”

He credits the “real togetherness” of a strong squad who have shrugged off the loss of leading scorer Joe Garner to injury, with the help of the veteran Kevin Davies and on-loan Jermaine Beckford. “When the opposition see Beckford and Davies on a team sheet it can be a daunting prospect,” the manager says.

It was Beckford’s goals that won Leeds promotion to the Championship in 2010 and if Grayson eventually left his boyhood team with a heavy heart, after his February 2012 sacking, today he can see the positives of having worked under “one of the most controversial chairmen you can work for [in Bates]. Did I learn a lot? I certainly did.” And he points to his Elland Road record as evidence that he is more than a League One specialist.

“I will take promotions all day long but I see myself as being a successful manager in the Championship. In my first year at Leeds I finished seventh. I had a great opportunity to get promoted if we’d been given a bit of funding. When I got sacked, we were three points off the play-offs. I’ve always said I have left every club in a better state than when I walked in.” Preston fans can already vouch for that.