Many deserve credit for Preston’s turnaround in recent years, and Simon Grayson is one who certainly deserves a huge chunk of praise.
When Preston sacked Graham Westley in February 2013, relegation from League One was a real threat. North End were just five points clear of the relegation zone, and reeling after a 3-1 defeat at Yeovil Town.
Grayson came in with three League One promotions on his CV. He took Blackpool, Leeds United and Huddersfield Town to the Championship, but he faced a very different job when he arrived at Deepdale; he had to keep Preston afloat.
He did exactly that, saving North End with games to spare before an impressive first full season. A dramatic win over rivals Blackpool was a great start, but playoff defeat to Rotherham United was a blow come May.
A year later, Grayson exorcised those demons by taking North End to the Championship with a 4-0 League One playoff final win, getting Preston back on track after a haunting final day defeat at Chesterfield to squander automatic promotion.
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Grayson got the best out of Joe Garner, made North End a solid, hard-to-beat side and established the club in the Championship once again, recording two successive 11th placed finishes whilst working on a tight budget.
Nobody really expected Preston to lose Grayson, but that’s exactly what happened in 2017. Following Sunderland’s relegation from the Premier League, they pounced to make Grayson their new boss, leaving North End without a manager on the first day of pre-season training.
We of course know that Alex Neil came in as his replacement, and things haven’t turned out well for Grayson. Whilst Neil has arguably taken Preston up a level from Grayson’s side, the former North End boss lasted just four months at Sunderland, three months at Bradford City and seven months back at Blackpool.
Some may wonder whether Grayson now regrets leaving a solid job at Preston for such a risky move to Sunderland, especially given his downwards trajectory since departing Deepdale.
Now, Grayson has told the EFL podcast that he didn’t actually want to leave Preston, but Sunderland was just a job too big to turn down, before quickly finding out that Sunderland’s overpaid flops wouldn’t work as hard as Preston’s key men.
Grayson did though suggest that Preston wouldn’t ‘have the vision to challenge for promotion’, which is a statement that will worry fans given the fight to keep hold of Alex Neil, as many won’t want to see a repeat performance.
“I’d been at Preston over four years and we were building something there,” said Grayson. “I didn’t want to leave Preston, but when the opportunity came to go to Sunderland it was too attractive a proposition to turn down. They were an ex-Premier League club. I thought hard about it and I just thought, I wouldn’t want to look back and think somebody has taken Sunderland back to the Premier League and that could have been me. That’s why I made the decision to go there, but when I did so, I didn’t realise it was going to be as big a job as it was.”
“Within days I could sense things weren’t right. You could just sense the unrest among the group, plenty of players didn’t want to be there – didn’t think they deserved to play in the Championship – and so there was a lot of negativity around the place. And even though a lot of them were Premier League players, I genuinely thought this isn’t that good a group of players. Compared to the lads I’d just left at Preston who would run through a brick wall for you, the attitude of some of the lads at Sunderland was really poor at times.”
“I don’t regret it. I’d have had more regret had I turned it down and the team got promoted under someone else. Of course, getting sacked so quickly while seeing Preston continue to develop with a large proportion of the squad that I put together [makes it hard]. I knew that the group of players at Preston I was leaving at the time had the capability to get better because of the team ethic, spirit and quality they had. But at that particular time, I just didn’t think Preston were going to have the vision to help me challenge for promotion, whereas at Sunderland I was going to a big club who could get 30-40 thousand inside the stadium, amazing training facilities etc. Of course, it didn’t work out how I would have liked, but I still don’t regret going,” he added.