IT has been quite a year for Simon Grayson.
Twelve months ago, he was plotting how best to take Leeds United to the next level after a hugely encouraging seventh-place finish in the club’s first season back in the Championship.
Now, the 42-year-old’s focus remains on winning promotion but it is not at Elland Road where he is looking to bring success but 13 or so miles along the A62 after Huddersfield Town offered him a route back into management just 20 days after his February sacking by Leeds.
His return was swifter than even Grayson had anticipated but, ahead of this lunchtime’s play-off semi-final first leg at Milton Keynes Dons, he admits to being delighted at his decision to take the plunge when Terriers chairman Dean Hoyle came calling.
“It did come as a surprise,” he admits when talking exclusively to the Yorkshire Post. “I know Glynn (Snodin, assistant) and Dusty (Ian Miller, coach) said when we joined Huddersfield that they had been bored within three days of us all leaving Leeds.
“But, if I’m being honest, I was ready for a break and expected to spend at least until the summer recharging my batteries after six years as a manager, with all the pressure and expectancy that comes with the job.
“All that, though, went out of the window when I met Dean on the Sunday night before we were appointed. Straight away, I could feel my own enthusiasm being revived by the passion and enthusiasm that Dean clearly had for Huddersfield Town.
“After what happened at Leeds, it was great to feel wanted. Professional pride makes a manager want to do well anyway but when a chairman basically head hunts you then you want to repay that trust.
“I saw (Sheffield Wednesday manager) Dave Jones say recently that he felt he owed Milan Mandaric and I feel the same here.”
The speed of his return to management may have surprised Grayson but, considering the strength of his CV, there was never any doubt he would be back.
At Blackpool, he transformed a club seemingly heading for relegation to the basement division in 2005 to one that, within two years, was back in the second tier after a near three-decade long absence.
At Elland Road, Grayson’s impact was even more marked with promotion from League One in his first full season together with an impressive return to the Championship and stirring Cup clashes with Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool.
As this season kicked off, the hope at Elland Road was Grayson could continue that progress but a slow start saw United end August six places off the foot of the table.
Five wins from the next seven games, however, propelled Leeds into the play-off places, a position they held until the festive season when three straight defeats led to suggestions Grayson was under pressure. The axe fell a month later after a 4-1 defeat to Birmingham City.
February proved to be a dangerous month for Yorkshire’s managers with Gary Megson and Lee Clark also being fired, and it was the latter’s departure that paved the way for Grayson’s own return.
The Terriers chief said: “This is a fantastic club and Huddersfield is a proper football town. At the moment, we average crowds of 14-15,000 but at the next level that would probably go up to 19-20,000 on a regular basis.
“From day one, we have all been made to feel right at home. Nothing has been too much trouble and I can’t imagine there being a friendlier club in the league, which comes from the chairman down.”
Since suffering two defeats in three days over Easter, Huddersfield’s season has been all about gearing up for the play-offs.
Training schedules have been amended in an attempt to keep the players fresh, while 38-goal top scorer Jordan Rhodes has been left on the bench for the last two games.
Grayson, a veteran of six play-off campaigns as a player and manager, said: “It has been clear for a while we would be playing MK Dons. We had people watching them all the time anyway and have sat through a lot of DVDs over the past 10 days.
“A lot of our training has been geared towards how we want to play against them plus their strengths and weaknesses.
“Now, it is a two-game season for us with, hopefully, another to follow a week or so later at Wembley.
“But the focus is on MK Dons. They are a good footballing team who have done really well this season.”
On the play-offs, Grayson added: “I am a huge fan of them, I really am. As a player, we had four years competing in the play-offs at Leicester. We lost the first one against Blackburn (in 1992), the second year I was in the squad as we lost to Swindon and the third year we beat Derby when I was captain. The following year we got relegated from the Premier League but came back via the play-offs again. I love them, though the downside, of course, is that it is a horrible way to go out.”
If Town can prevail over two legs against the Dons, either Sheffield United or Stevenage will await in the May 26 final. Victory for the Terriers at Wembley would then set up two mouth-watering West Yorkshire derby encounters and a return to Elland Road for Grayson. That, however, is not even in his thinking.
“My motivation is to get Huddersfield in the Championship,” he says, “and playing at all those great stadiums. Leeds, of course, would be one of them but I have a few clubs in there such as Blackburn Rovers and Leicester. Plus, Blackpool if they don’t go up via the play-offs.
“The only target is to take Huddersfield up as that would repay the faith of the chairman who brought us here.”