Being the realistic and fair-minded character he undoubtedly is, United manager Brian McDermott would doubtless acknowledge the task he faces in matching the achievements of his last-but-one predecessor at Elland Road, Simon Grayson.
Grayson moved into the United hot-seat just before Christmas of 2008 after an acrimonious parting of ways with his former employers Blackpool – coincidentally United’s next opponents on Boxing Day. His record at Bloomfield Road had been one of success, attaining promotion to the second tier for a famous old club which had been in the doldrums for far too long. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the description could just as easily have been of Leeds United, and Grayson was destined to repeat his promotion feat at Elland Road, dragging comatose giants Leeds out of their humiliating third division berth in his first full season – despite having to work under the strictures imposed by a certain Master Bates.
There are some who seek now to belittle the scale of Grayson’s achievements, preferring to point at the lows of life in the Championship where Leeds had started so brightly. But they haemorrhaged talent, failed to strengthen and fell rapidly by the wayside over the next couple of seasons, amid a welter of huge defeats. That looks bad on any manager’s CV – but account has to be taken of the way in which Simon Grayson’s hands were tied in terms of his ability to improve the squad. His career after Leeds has encompassed a third promotion from the third level of English football as he took Huddersfield up at the first time of asking. Currently, he looks to be on course for a fourth such success, his current charges Preston North End lodged comfortably in the play-off zone despite a heavy loss to rivals Brentford at the weekend.
But it is for his success in reviving a moribund Leeds United, despite the Bates factor, for which Simon Grayson remains best-known. To turn around a situation of seemingly terminal decline – after a succession of managers had failed to impose a big-club resilience on a lowly league – is the jewel in the crown of Grayson’s coaching career, especially as his promotion success was gilded with the fantasy-football type achievement of dismissing the champions from the FA Cup, at their own ground, in the third round. For this alone, he would merit a prominent place in Leeds United’s turbulent but occasionally glorious history.
Simon Grayson lifted Leeds out of League One, elevating us to the Championship, in only his first full season. It’s the only promotion he’s achieved outside of play-off football (note to Messrs Haigh and McDermott: Leeds United just don’t do play-offs) – and it’s clearly something still very close to his heart. To win promotion with your boyhood favourites as well as slaying that club’s most despised dragon in its own lair – that’s the stuff of Boys’ Own fiction, made reality by a man as modest and dedicated as any we’ve been lucky enough to have associated with Leeds United AFC.
If Brian McDermott is to emulate Grayson’s first-full-season achievement, then it would have to be this season. That. perhaps, would be unrealistic – given the fact that Brian has had his own problems of ownership and finances to deal with since moving in at United last April. Clearly, whenever McDermott manages to guide Leeds back into the top flight, he will be hailed a hero and rightly so. Until that happens, Simon Grayson remains, for me anyway, the third-greatest Boss at Elland Road behind the unassailable Don and his nearest rival Sergeant Wilko. Some will disagree with that assessment – but really, the job of hoisting Leeds back from their lowest ebb was so massively important to us all that the person who managed it deserves appropriate recognition.
As Brian McDermott heads towards his first anniversary as Leeds boss in April, he might reflect that by then he’ll have a very good idea of what is possible in this current campaign. A lot will depend on the currently-mooted takeover being approved by the Football League in time for Leeds to strengthen ahead of the run-in. If they do that, and if the admirable “McDermott effect” continues to guide the club’s progress, then maybe – just maybe – he pull off a promotion that would see him elevated into the company of United’s greatest managers: Revie, Wilkinson – and Simon Grayson.