It’s impossible to chat to Simon Grayson about Leeds United and not mention He Who Must Not Be Named.
Grayson’s tenure as Leeds’ longest-serving manager since David O’Leary was defined by many things: victory at Old Trafford; promotion from League One; a young, enterprising team taking the Championship by storm before just falling short.
But it can also be defined by his relationship with, and the methods of, owner Ken Bates: the club’s inability to hold on to their best players; the financial constraints Grayson was forced to work under to try to replace those players; the fact money was instead spent on building projects, legal fees and a failing radio station.
For many Leeds supporters, Bates was public enemy No.1, and his treatment of Grayson went a long way to cementing that status. Indeed, when it’s put to Grayson how unique a situation he helped develop at Elland Road, a manager, assistant manager, captain and vice-captain who were all boyhood Leeds fans, he offers a wry smile in response: “Ken Bates wasn’t.”
But Grayson’s relationship with his boss was actually much healthier than it appeared from the outside looking in.
“Ken Bates didn’t bother me because I’d worked with Karl Oyston a little bit at Blackpool who’s quite difficult,” he says. “Ken Bates had his reputation, but I’d back my ability and confidence to get on with these people to make it happen.
“All the owners that I’ve worked with I’d like to think we’ve classed each other as work colleagues and friends as well.”
Given Bates’ status as a tax exile living in Monaco, Grayson would often fly to Monte Carlo for the day to meet the former Chelsea owner and talk football.
“You have to be a certain type to handle Ken. I had a bit of banter with him and he liked that. He was still your boss, but he liked me in terms of how my personality was.”
As ever, there’s a caveat.
“I got on well with him, but you did feel as well like you’re let down because you wanted to move forward. I just don’t think the club had the money to do it. And did they have the ambition to do it? Probably not.
“They’d seen what the club had gone through financially and didn’t want to go through that. But the odd little gamble…I wasn’t wanting millions on players. Half a million on this, that and the other would have helped us go along the line.”
Grayson is referring specifically to the January transfer window of the 2010-11 season.
Leeds had adjusted to the step up to the Championship remarkably well. The summer departure of star striker Jermaine Beckford prompted Grayson to oversee an evolution into a 4-2-3-1 formation, with a central midfield pairing of Neil Kilkenny and Bradley Johnson combining with the attack of Robert Snodgrass, Jonny Howson, Max Gradel and Luciano Becchio to prove a potent force going forward.
There were, however, fragilities in defence. Grayson was happy with Kasper Schmeichel in goal, but talismanic centre-back Paddy Kisnorbo had snapped his Achilles towards the end of the previous campaign, ruling him out for over year, while captain Richard Naylor was also struggling for fitness and form as age began to catch up with his body.
Yet when Leeds beat league leaders QPR 2-0 at Elland Road in front of the biggest crowd in the country on December 18, they sat in second place on Christmas Day.
“Max scored two goals and I was thinking, ‘We’ve got a chance here of at least the play-offs.’”
Grayson’s thought process for the January window was simple. One experienced centre-back could make a huge difference to his young side’s prospects.
Two targets were identified: Kasper Gorkss, the QPR defender who Grayson had worked with at Blackpool, and Gareth McAuley, then 32 years old, who had six months left on his contract at Ipswich Town.
“They only wanted three or four hundred grand for him. The board decided we didn’t need anybody and McAuley was too old.”
At the end of the campaign, McAuley left Ipswich to join West Brom in the Premier League, where he spent the next seven years, representing Northern Ireland at Euro 2016 in the process.
“I felt we were so close and another defender would have certainly made us stronger defensively,” Grayson says. “I didn’t want to get away from winning games and attacking, which had been my philosophy ever since I’d been at Leeds, but I knew we needed to be a little bit tighter with extra quality.”
Rather than strengthen a problem position, Leeds waited until March to sign young midfielders Barry Bannan and Jake Livermore on loan from Aston Villa and Tottenham, respectively.
If anything, the promising players from the Premier League only disrupted an area of the side which was working well. Leeds ultimately finished seventh, three points outside of the play-off places.
• • • •
• • • •
“As the season went on we sort of stumbled along and just fell out of the play-offs. Last game of the season we went to QPR and won, but other results went against us.
“Of course it’s frustrating because we were that close to getting to where everybody wanted to get to at the first attempt. Who knows if we’d have got promoted that year, but I think [signing a defender] would have given us a better chance of being able to achieve that.”
Come the end of the season, the frustrations only increased for Grayson. The board decided to sell Schmeichel against their manager’s wishes as the goalkeeper had only 12 months left on his contract and had rejected a new offer.
Likewise, Kilkenny and Johnson – two players who were never stars at Elland Road but crucial cogs in a collective greater than the sum of its parts – left on free transfers after failing to agree new deals.
“All of a sudden this group of players that had done really well for me and are outstanding talents were not getting the contracts they wanted at Leeds. They have to look after themselves.
“As much as they had an affiliation with the club and feeling for the club, they still have to look after themselves and other clubs were offering them better contracts.
“Again, these lads weren’t after fortunes, they just wanted a little bit of reflection on what they thought they should be earning.”
Things only got worse when Gradel was sold to Saint-Etienne on transfer deadline day. After coming so close to inspiring a promotion push in Leeds’ first season back in the second tier, Grayson had suddenly seen his first-choice goalkeeper and three of his front six leave, while a general to lead his defence was still conspicuous in its absence.
There was still evidence of the never-say-die spirit Grayson had helped instil in comebacks at West Ham and Brighton and a 4-1 win at Nottingham Forest early in the season, but there were also heavy defeats to Blackpool and Barnsley.
Crucially, the atmosphere around the club had changed. Whereas Leeds had travelled to Old Trafford in 2009 and knocked Manchester United out of the FA Cup as a League One club on the up, they welcomed the Red Devils to Elland Road for a League Cup tie in 2011 fearing the worst, despite being in a division higher than when they had beaten their old rivals. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side eased to a 3-0 win, scoring all three goals in the first half.
Come January 2012, Leeds were still challenging for a play-off place, but Grayson’s position was under intense scrutiny. History began to repeat itself when Howson, a lifelong Leeds fan and captain, was sold to Norwich City against both the manager and player’s wishes.
“How can you say you’re aiming for promotion and then sell your captain?” Snodgrass thought aloud in public. The winger himself would later make the same move to East Anglia.
On the last day of January, Nikola Zigic scored four goals as Birmingham City won 4-1 at a sparsely-populated, depressed Elland Road.
Grayson was sacked the following day with Leeds just three points outside the play-offs. They would end the season in 14th, 14 points off the top six under the management of Neil Warnock.
Grayson is again diplomatic about his sacking and Bates’ actions, but he was left hurt by criticism from his former employers soon after his departure, specifically club legend and then-director Peter Lorimer.
“Stuff did come out in the papers and I pulled people on this like Peter Lorimer. I pulled Peter and was just like, ‘Look, you’re telling me one thing to my face and then writing completely other things about me.’
“I get on well with Peter now. For six months or so afterwards I wasn’t particularly happy with what he did. But he was employed by the club and I think he thought he had to back the club. And the person he was talking to frequently had a different side of the story.
“I always used to speak to Ken every day and his wife Susannah treated me like a second son. At times she’d say that. Since I’ve been sacked I’ve never heard from her since.”
“It happened and life is too short for any issues long term with people like that.
Grayson has heard from Bates once since he was sacked by Leeds, although they certainly weren’t a happy family by that point.
At a fundraising event for Sherburn White Rose Under 11s in December 2013, Grayson conducted a public Q & A alongside Glynn Snodin, his assistant manager and a former Leeds player.
Loose tongued and a little well oiled, Snodin alleged that Gwyn Williams, Bates’ right-hand man who served as his chief scout at Chelsea and technical director at Leeds, would use the toilet in the players’ dressing room in order to eavesdrop on anything that was being said and report back to Bates.
Bates later phoned Grayson to threaten a lawsuit, but nothing subsequently came of the matter.
“[Williams] was always Ken’s eyes and ears,” Grayson says.
“He had contacts with agents and would recommend some players and you’d think, ‘Yeah they’re good ones.’ Some of the others you’d think, ‘They won’t play for Leeds, they’re not good enough.’
• • • •
• • • •
“I had a working relationship with him, then there were a few things that started going off that I didn’t agree with.
“I started falling out with him a little bit more and I think that was the reason that a couple of poor results – we didn’t lose seven on the trot that lost me my job, it was a few results – and I just think he decided that [because of] the grudge and how we’d fallen out with each other, he would advise Ken to do what he did. And he did.”
Despite the myriad of frustrations, Grayson still feels immense pride at what he achieved as manager of the club he grew up supporting and made his senior debut as a player for.
“I’m like everybody that’s been part of that Leeds group. You feel frustrated because we could have actually achieved something with that group.
“You understand the economics of football clubs with how they’re run – players leave clubs – but we were so close to having a real good group.
“I genuinely believe I was going to take them back to the Premier League. I had chances to go to the Premier League as manager with two different clubs when we were in the Championship and I turned them down because I thought I would fulfil my own ambition of managing in the Premier League with the club that I supported.
“I don’t regret anything. I worked tirelessly to make it successful. Supporters loved my time there. I loved being with them. I’d love to be there now in the Premier League and would still love to manage them one day in the future.
“I’m immensely proud of what I achieved and the style of football I brought to the club and how we entertained and the spirit and passion we showed week in, week out.
“We didn’t get everything right, but I’m proud I reconnected the supporters back with the team and the city. A bit like Bielsa’s doing now. He seems to have got the club back together with the city.”
Grayson is unequivocal in his desire to return to Leeds one day, although he has already twice come close to doing so since his sacking.
When Brian McDermott had finally been relieved of his duties by Massimo Cellino, Grayson met with the erratic Italian, who offered him the chance to return to the Elland Road dugout.
“After meeting him my heart was saying I’d walk back tomorrow, but my head was saying, ‘Not a chance am I working for him,’ as much as I wanted to go back to Leeds.”
Grayson was among three managers who rejected Cellino’s offer in the summer of 2014 alongside Darrell Clarke and Karl Robinson. Dave Hockaday was eventually plucked from obscurity and lasted all of 70 days and six matches. Darko Milanic was then appointed, only to be sacked himself after just 32 days.
“I’m thinking, ‘Fucking hell, I’ve made the right decision,’” Grayson laughs.
“It was a completely ridiculous time. There were so many decisions in terms of good people leaving. There was no consistency in terms of what people were being asked to do or were going do in all the roles. He was very up and down.”
• • • •
• • • •
Another opportunity to rejoin Leeds almost presented itself last season after yet another manager in Thomas Christiansen had been given the bullet. Grayson received a phone call from director of football Victor Orta and managing director Angus Kinnear.
Grayson made it known he was keen on the role and was informed he was on a three-man shortlist, eventually losing out to Paul Heckingbottom.
Now Grayson is adjusting to life away from football management. While he is keeping busy with media work, this summer marked the first time in 32 years he has not started a season at a club as either a player or manager after leaving Bradford City at the end of 2017-18 and rejecting “four or five offers” since.
In that time he has seen his son, Joe, make his senior debut for Blackburn Rovers, while he has visited the likes of Burnley and Newcastle United to see how they operate.
“It has allowed me to do different things and take stock of myself. There’s a different world outside football.
“You don’t realise how intense it is and how much it takes out of you. I’ve not had much breathing space and worked for some big clubs and difficult clubs and difficult owners, but it’s in your blood.
“Do I want to go to work? Of course I do. I’ve got 650 games under my belt and four promotions. I’ve got a lot more to offer.”
By Rob Conlon