Simon Grayson: 'I want to be a Premier League manager here'

The eternal understudy is on the biggest stage today when Leeds visit Old Trafford. Here, he opens up on life with Cantona, Bremner and Bates. Phil Shaw speaks to Simon Grayson

Sunday 03 January 2010 01:00
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The two substitutes received a rousing ovation as they jogged towards the section of the QPR ground where Leeds United's supporters were massed. The man wearing No 12, Eric Cantona, reciprocated. The No 14, Simon Grayson, told him: "Don't worry. That's for me, not you."

The next morning, Howard Wilkinson sold Grayson to Leicester City for £50,000, a month before the Elland Road club pipped Manchester United to the 1991-92 League championship. Cantona soon followed him out, going on to become Sir Alex Ferguson's man of destiny. Now, though, there are signs that the young reserve whose Yorkshire accent and tongue-in-cheek humour Cantona did not understand that night in London, could fulfil a similar role in Leeds' modern history.

Barely 12 months ago, Grayson left Championship side Blackpool to succeed Gary McAllister as the manager of the club, by now toiling in League One, where he first trained as a 10-year-old and made his debut at 17. "Simon Who?" has delivered 40 victories and only eight defeats in 59 games, leading Leeds to the top of the third tier and into a third-round FA Cup tie against their old and bitter Roses rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford today.

For the 9,000 fans who will follow them over the Pennines, the tie is a reminder of the great days before the financial meltdown of the Peter Ridsdale era and two subsequent relegations. Yet Grayson hopes that this match, like September's 1-0 loss to Liverpool in the Carling Cup, may also be a preview of Leeds' future.

"I want to be a Premier League manager, but my aim is to get this club back there," the 40-year-old says in response to suggestions that he will inevitably be linked with top-flight vacancies. "I was in a comfortable job with Blackpool but when the chance came to come to Leeds, who I supported as a boy, it was the only option I wanted.

"Last autumn I went to a primary school at Adel in Leeds as part of our bid to be one of the host cities if we get the 2018 World Cup. A kid asked me if I'd like to be England manager then and my answer was that I hoped I'd still be at Leeds because it would mean we'd been successful."

When he arrived, Grayson felt the club "couldn't get any lower". But he adds: "I also believed that someone was going to turn things around. I thought, 'Why shouldn't it be me?' We've got a long way to go. We've achieved nothing yet. But we've given ourselves an opportunity."

Six weeks into his reign, Leeds succumbed 2-0 at Hereford and the customary sizeable travelling support turned on the team. "They were singing, 'You're not fit to wear the shirt'. Me and the staff talked to the players afterwards, and full credit to them: most of the ones who let the club down that night are the same people who have done well this season."

Grayson, whose cricketing brother Paul is the head coach of Essex, had his attitudes shaped by no less an Elland Road icon than Billy Bremner. Having signed schoolboy forms at 14, on the same day as Gary Speed, he was plucked from the juniors by Don Revie's firebrand captain to wear his old No 4 shirt in a goalless derby at Huddersfield. "Billy was a major influence on me. I even cleaned his boots! You could listen to his stories all day. Or you'd be thinking you might get away by 3pm and he'd say: 'Right, we're going back out to train'. Once, we were playing five-a-side and he arrived in a smart suit and shoes. He suddenly joined in and was still brilliant on the ball. I learned so much from him. He was unfortunate with a lack of resources. When he reached the play-off final we lost to Charlton despite going ahead in extra time and also lost to Coventry in the FA Cup after we'd been 20 minutes from the final. It taught me about the fine lines between success and failure."

Wilkinson took over and, with improved funding, brought about the transformation Grayson wants to achieve at Leeds. "In less than four years we went from mediocrity in the Second Division to winning the League."

However, by the time the budding right-back-cum-midfielder left, going on to build a successful career with Leicester, Aston Villa and Blackburn, he had made only three more appearances. "It was frustrating. It's easier now to get games because of the number of subs you're allowed whereas I travelled all over England with Leeds without getting on.

"I did play at Wembley in the Football League Centenary Tournament in 1988, but it was just 15 minutes each way against Nottingham Forest. We lost 3-0, then it was back on the bus."

Is his failure to break through at Leeds a factor in his driven approach to reviving the club? "People assume I've got unfinished business here but I don't see it that way. As a player I wanted to be the best I could and it's the same as a manager, except that you're not just looking after yourself but 30,000 fans, 30 players, the coaches and all the staff."

Even so, Grayson admits it was a "bizarre scenario" when he emerged from the tunnel on Boxing Day 2008 for the first match of his second coming. "I still have to pinch myself that it's really happening. I was at the funeral recently of someone from my time in digs as a 16-year-old apprentice, and they said: 'Whoever would've thought you'd be manager one day'?"

Well, Ken Bates, for one. Asked about his relationship with the cantankerous, Monaco-based chairman, Grayson laughs before replying: "You hear stories about him, but I have to say he has backed me since day one on everything from bringing players in to staffing. We each understand how the other works and we both have the sole aim of making Leeds United successful again. He's absorbed the fans' passion for the club."

Their fervour will be raucously evident this afternoon, even though Leeds have not won at United in 17 visits spread over 29 years, not to mention the fact that 42 League places and a chasm in spending power and silverware currently separate them. As he prepares for the contest, the level-headed side of Grayson's personality seems to be vying with his natural enthusiasm at the prospect of tangling with such a great manager and his world-class team.

"Whatever side Sir Alex puts out is going to be full of fantastic players," he says. "But that gives our team a big incentive to test their ability against them. We'll just try to do what has made us successful so far. There's no reason why the qualities we brought to last Monday's win at Stockport can't be the ingredients for a positive performance at Old Trafford."

Grayson is grateful that he does not have to mark Ryan Giggs, as he often did as a player. "He's an unbelievable player and professional. I remember Leicester getting stuffed by United and thinking 'happy days' when Lee Sharpe went off, only for Giggs to come on, just as they could send on, say, [Wayne] Rooney for [Dimitar] Berbatov against us. He still has the desire that I'm looking for in players, and it comes from the very top. Sir Alex has just turned 68 yet he still has the hunger to succeed of someone half his age."

At least Leeds no longer have to endure Cantona rubbing their noses in it. Modestly contradicting the faux cockiness of his QPR story, Grayson doubts whether the Frenchman would remember him. "Eric had an aura about him and could do incredible things in training, but Howard [Wilkinson] tended to use him from the bench. It was a big surprise when Fergie bought him; he'd obviously seen something special in him. But if you asked any of the Leeds players whether he'd have such a phenomenal impact at United, they would have said, no."

The answer would have been the same had they been asked if Grayson, the eternal understudy, would eventually be the man drawing the acclaim of the fans as the latest successor to Revie. In Revie's day, Leeds regularly advanced deep into every cup they entered in tandem with a championship challenge. Current circumstances, says Grayson, demand a sense of realism.

"We're hoping for a great day but promotion has to be the overriding aim. We haven't lost since the draw was made and came from behind to win the last two, so it hasn't distracted us. This is a big game and almost the only one since I've been here where we've gone in as underdogs. But Wycombe and Exeter are coming up. In the long run, they're more important."

United in hatred: FA Cup clashes

There were brothers, Bobby and Jack Charlton, on opposing sides, and Nobby Stiles faced brother-in-law Johnny Giles, yet there was no love lost when Manchester United and Leeds United first tangled in the FA Cup.

The 1965 semi-final at Hillsborough ended with Denis Law's shirt in shreds, and in the Nottingham replay Billy Bremner's 89th-minute header did the same to Matt Busby's Wembley dreams.

Busby and Don Revie locked horns at the same stage in 1970, another lone Bremner goal settling the tie at Bolton at the third attempt.

Back in Sheffield for a third semi-final, in 1977, early goals set Tommy Docherty's Reds on their way to a 2-1 win.

In 1992, Mark Hughes dumped Leeds in the third round, but Howard Wilkinson's side, free from distractions, went on to win the championship. Three years later at Old Trafford, two goals in the first three minutes set up a 3-1 fifth-round win for the home club.

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