Leeds United v Preston North End: Long wait for Elland Road return finally over for Simon Grayson

FAMILIAR FACE: Simon Grayson, during his time at Leeds United.   Picture: Bruce Rollinson
FAMILIAR FACE: Simon Grayson, during his time at Leeds United. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
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CHRISTMAS week is invariably a time to renew old acquaintances and Simon Grayson will be doing just that.

Emotional returns to two Yorkshire clubs he led to promotion from League One await, as the 46-year-old takes his Preston North End side to Leeds United today and then Huddersfield Town on Boxing Day.

Leeds United's Souleymane Doukara.' Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Leeds United's Souleymane Doukara.' Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

It is a remarkable quirk of the fixture list, not least because Grayson has not been back to either club in an official capacity since being sacked.

“Leeds was the one that leapt out,” admits the 46-year-old when speaking to The Yorkshire Post ahead of his return to a club where he started as an apprentice and then returned as manager almost exactly seven years ago.

“That is probably to be expected. I had been hoping to go there as Huddersfield manager (towards the end of the 2012-13 campaign) but got the sack before the game came round!

“My family are looking forward to going back and so am I. After the game at Leeds, Huddersfield away was the next one I spotted when we got the fixtures through during the summer.

“I have an affinity with Huddersfield, as we got promoted and I enjoyed my time there. I didn’t see the sack coming, if I am honest. Unlike at Leeds. But I am still looking forward to going back on Boxing Day.”

The two promotions Grayson earned at Elland Road and the John Smith’s Stadium are among four he has managed from League One.

Last May brought the latest of those with Preston, who triumphed in the play-offs after being pipped to second place in heart-breaking fashion on the final day.

Initially, North End took time to settle in the Championship but a run of just one defeat in the last 11 games means Grayson returns to Leeds on something of a high.

“We have kept eight clean in those 11 games, too, which is something the Leeds fans probably can’t believe after my time there in the Championship!” quipped the Preston chief when asked about his side’s recent run.

Grayson, of course, was at the helm when United last looked even remotely close to a possible Premier League return.

Coming out of the third tier in 2010 on the back of having caused a seismic FA Cup shock at Manchester United, Leeds possessed the sort of momentum that has propelled the likes of Norwich City and Southampton to back-to-back promotions.

At Christmas, United were sitting second in the Championship. As late as mid-April, Grayson’s side seemed nailed on for the play-offs. Ultimately, however, Leeds finished one place shy of the top six. A goals against column that read ‘70’ proved to be their downfall, a tally that included conceding six at home to Preston in what remains the last meeting between the two clubs at Elland Road.

Leeds did score 81 goals – a tally only promoted Norwich could beat that season in the second tier – thanks to a vast armoury of attack-minded players but that porous defence proved the club’s undoing.

“It was a special team,” said Grayson. “Bradley Johnson, Jonny Howson, Robert Snodgrass, Luciano Becchio, Max Gradel – a lot of those lads went on to have special careers.

“Then, there was Kasper Schmeichel, who has matured into an excellent goalkeeper and is top of the Premier League right now.

“There was a great spirit among the group and I am delighted they went on to do well. But, ultimately, that is tinged with sadness that we could not have kept them all together. If we had, I believe Leeds would have reached the Premier League.”

The following season saw United again occupying a play-off place in early December but a rotten Christmas that culminated in a 4-1 thrashing at Barnsley left Grayson under pressure. He battled on for another month but another heavy defeat, this time at home to Birmingham City, signalled the end of his reign.

“I left four years ago so that makes a difference,” replies Grayson when asked about he is expecting from today’s return. “It is not as if I am going back to Elland Road after six months or whatever.

“A lot of water has gone under the bridge since I left. I am not sure what reception I will get from the fans. What will be, will be, in that respect. But I do feel I left Leeds in a far better place than where I found them. We had some really good times along the way.

“Since I left, no-one has got higher than the seventh we finished. Or to within three points of the play-offs, as Leeds were when I left. I feel I did a good job.

“I have an abundance of memories, several key games both good and bad. My first game against Leicester was one, as just managing Leeds was the fulfilment of a dream. The others that stick out include that awful night at Hereford (when Leeds lost 2-0). The fans were right to have a go that night.

“The thing about those type of nights are you find out about yourself. And we responded in the right way. Then there was Old Trafford. What an unbelievable experience, as was that last game of the season when Leeds won promotion.

That day pretty much summed up Leeds for the last 15 years. Making life hard but, on this occasion, getting it right.

“As for going back this weekend, I am looking forward to it. Above all else, though, I am going there for three points. What matters is the present and future, and we want to beat Leeds. In that respect, it will be no different from going to, say, Reading. I will have my professional head on, simple as that.”