Transitioning from player to manager

By: League Managers Association

Simon Grayson has developed something of a speciality as a manager. He takes clubs with a rich heritage and helps them to regain some of their past glory through promotion and the kind of competitive performances not seen since their heydays. It’s little wonder he has barely been out of a job since he retired as a player in 2005.

While some people find the transition from playing to management a tough one, for Grayson it was a gradual process and a natural progression. A professional footballer for 18 years, he got his first stab at management at Blackpool in 2006 while still playing for the club. Having earned his coaching badges, he was asked to take on the reserve team, and then, when Colin Hendry left a year later, Grayson hung up his boots for good to focus on his management career.

“Very quickly I found myself in the difficult situation of having to manage players who had recently been my friends and colleagues, choosing who to leave out of the team or even release from their contracts,” he says. Even so, he quickly realised that he was very comfortable in the manager’s role and more than capable of making the tough decisions necessary for success. He even managed to retain a good, albeit different, working relationship with the players, something he puts down to always treating them as he would want to be treated.

Looking up

Young and inexperienced in management, Grayson was never above seeking advice from his past managers and has incorporated some of the lessons he learned as a player into his own approach and philosophy. As much as you think you know about the game from your playing days, management is a totally different proposition, he says.

“I was a young player for Leeds United during a very successful era for the club under Howard Wilkinson, when Gordon Strachan was a mainstay of the club,” he says. “Gary Speed, David Batty and I were all coming through at the time and Strachan taught us how to conduct ourselves and how to lead by example. He worked so hard and I’m sure his example shaped all of our careers.”

Grayson later spent six years at Leicester City under Martin O’Neill and Brian Little, during which time the side achieved four play-off finals and a League Cup Final win.

“Martin and Brian were also a big inspiration,” he says, “and helped to shape not only my playing career, but also who I am as a manager. They were very different in character; Martin would get every last drop of performance out of an individual and make it work for the team. His leadership abilities and the team spirit and camaraderie he engendered helped us to exceed all expectations. Brian Little, meanwhile, was very hands-on and involved in the day-to-day coaching of the team,” says Grayson. “I have a huge amount of respect for him, because he took me to Leicester in the first place and then to Aston Villa. He loved to be creative and try different things out on the training pitch.”

Grayson is also thankful for some guidance during his early days as manager of Blackpool when, he admits, he tried to be a bit too radical and change things too quickly. “Tony Parkes was a calming influence and the ideal person to have alongside me,” he says. “He was full of enthusiasm and had so much experience working alongside the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Ray Harford and Graeme Souness at Blackburn.”

Now with the benefit of considerable experience, Grayson’s own management philosophy centres on the love of the game and the willingness to give 100 per cent to each performance. “My mantra is be hard-working, express yourself and do your best,” he says. “What I communicate to my team is that if they know they have given everything they have to give, they can have nothing to regret or reproach themselves about.”

He also wants people to come to work each day with smiles on their faces. “It is a fantastic opportunity to work in professional football and be paid for playing football,” he says. “I will have a laugh and a joke with my players, but they also know that when it’s time to work we have to apply ourselves fully and get on with the job in hand.”

Creating history

During his time with Blackpool, Grayson’s achievements included promotion to the Championship and taking the side to the fourth round of both the FA Cup and the League Cup, their best progress in 17 and 35 years respectively.

Then, in 2008, he took up the post of manager of Leeds United, where he took them to a fourth place finish in his first season and won promotion to the Championship in 2010.

Despite his success with the club, Grayson lost his job in February 2012, but found a new challenge just weeks later when he replaced Lee Clarke as manager of Huddersfield Town. True to form, Grayson took the side from League One up into the Championship, but after a spell of consecutive losses in autumn 2012, his contract was terminated in January 2013.

Once again, Grayson’s proven ability saw him snapped up within weeks, this time at Preston North End, yet another club with a rich history. Taking the helm of an organisation with such a strong culture and heritage is never an easy task, carrying with it a weight of responsibility that many managers will never experience. It takes determination and tenacity to achieve the kind of results that Grayson has in his career to date.

“I have had the motivation at each club to try to create the next chapter of history,” he says, “and I’ve tried to use that to motivate the players as well. I encourage them to be the next batch of heroes, so I’ll show them the pictures on the wall and say now it’s your turn to create history; something that people will also look back on in years to come.”

To date, Grayson has certainly created a little bit of history with each of the clubs he has managed, including, he recalls, breaking some of the records set by Don Revie’s team at Leeds United. More recently, he has led his current club, Preston, to their best start to a season in 110 years.

Family business

Interestingly, the career pattern of Simon’s brother, Paul, has almost mirrored his own. After a successful career as a professional cricketer that lasted 15 years and included representing England, Paul Grayson stopped playing in 2006 and took up a coaching position at Essex a year later. The two brothers, close in age, have also been close in interest and ambition.

“From an early age, we have understood one another’s preferred sports – I also played cricket and Paul was a good footballer – and they were always a topic of conversation,” says Grayson. “It has been really interesting to see how Paul dealt with different situations, first as a player and then as a coach. We’ve always shared and cross-referenced our thoughts and approaches on coaching.”

Having careers so similar in nature also means the brothers can offer one another support, something many managers would value given the often lonely nature of the job. “We are always on the other end of the phone if one of us needs advice or a sounding board,” says Grayson. “It’s good to be able to look at things from a different perspective.”

Given the similarities, one might naturally ask if there were early influences or sources of inspiration that channelled the brothers into sport or equipped them with their obvious natural coaching skills.

“Our mother has had Multiple Sclerosis for the past 30 years and, despite the problems she has to cope with, she keeps enjoying life on a day-to-day basis,” says Grayson. “That has always been a big inspiration and motivator to me.”

And his parents are, he says, both winners in quite different ways. “My dad was a PE teacher and a good non-league footballer,” says Grayson. “He also played amateur cricket to a good level and captained both football and cricket teams. I think he was a natural leader.” Between the ages of five and 15, the two brothers would go to watch their father play or go to a sports hall to practice together.

Yet, he says, they were never pressured to take a sporting career path. “What dad did do was guide us and inspire us,” he says. “Like him, Paul and I are level-headed and take things in our stride. We don’t get too carried away with success nor too despondent with failure. I believe that’s one of the most important things you learn as a manager, because players look to see how you are reacting to situations. You have to strike the right balance and send out the right messages.”