Fairytale comes to an abrupt end for man with Leeds in his heart

EVEN when the pressure was on with speculation raging over his future as Leeds United manager, Simon Grayson was rarely someone to be fazed. Nor did he lose his sense of humour.

Typical was Monday’s exchange with this reporter when, after answering questions about all manner of subjects from the January transfer window through to his own job security, there was a slight pause.

“So, are you going to ask me about Alan Smith?”

The one-time Leeds United hero, a major transfer target of Grayson’s the previous summer, had joined Milton Keynes Dons on loan just a couple of days earlier so was on the list of topics to be covered.

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“Okay, Simon, Alan Smith. Was he on your list of targets during this window?”

The reply was succinct and to the point. “No comment.” Then, as if affronted by the question, a stern-faced Grayson stood up as if setting off towards the door before turning back at the last moment with a broad smile on his face.

For the next couple of minutes, the United manager then outlined his stance on Smith and why his lack of football had deterred the club making a fresh approach for the Newcastle United midfielder.

It was Grayson all over, keeping from all but his close and loyal circle of friends the undoubted pressure he was feeling after what had been a testing couple of months which had also included the enforced sale of his captain Jonny Howson.

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The same could be said about similarly difficult periods earlier in his 37-month reign – even the chastening home defeats to the likes of Swindon Town, Blackpool and Preston North End were unable to shatter the veneer of calmness that Grayson invariably exuded.

By Tuesday night, however, something had changed. I was in the Elland Road tunnel when Grayson emerged half-an-hour or so after the final whistle had blown at the end of United’s 4-1 defeat to Birmingham City.

For the first time, he looked a beaten man, his eyes betraying the emotions of a man who sensed a fatal blow had been inflicted on his tenure at the helm of a club he has supported since childhood.

Listening to the interview he then conducted with Eddie Gray for Yorkshire Radio merely added to my belief that even Grayson’s ability to ride the knocks that come every manager’s way had been stretched to the limit.

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He was saying all the right things about “needing to work hard on the training pitch” and taking “confidence from how we played for an hour”.

But, for the first time, Grayson’s words sounded hollow – almost as if he did not believe them himself.

Less than 12 hours later, the 42-year-old’s reign was over – the final act coming via a summons from chief executive Shaun Harvey to Thorp Arch, where he and his coaching staff were told of their dismissals.

Sackings are, of course, a sad fact of life for any manager.

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No one bar Sir Alex Ferguson in the modern game is immune from the axe, with even Arsene Wenger having come under increasing pressure at Arsenal over the past 12 months.

What Grayson was able to do, however, amid the sadness of having to clear his desk yesterday morning was look back with pride on the job he has done at Elland Road.

Certainly, Leeds United are in a much healthier shape than they were when he walked through the door to succeed Gary McAllister just before Christmas, 2008.

During the intervening years, promotion from what to Leeds was fast becoming the wasteland of League One was secured along with the end of a near-three decade wait for a victory at Old Trafford against bitter rivals Manchester United.

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Battling draws at Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal in the FA Cup were also notable, not least for allowing United’s long-suffering supporters to bask in the glow of their club being back in the spotlight for all the right reasons.

Restoring that sense of pride to Leeds mattered to Grayson, a boyhood fan who went on to realise his dream by joining the staff as an apprentice.

Handed his debut by Billy Bremner, Ripon-born Grayson may have then had to leave Elland Road to become an established first-team regular, but he never lost his links to Leeds. Coming back as manager, therefore, felt right. It also meant he understood the joy that winning at Old Trafford gave supporters.

He also knew just how vital escaping League One was for United and that the manager who then took the club back into the Premier League would be assured a place in history.

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As Grayson celebrated his second anniversary in charge at Christmas, 2010, it looked increasingly like he could be that man to end the club’s exile from the elite.

A 2-0 victory over runaway leaders QPR at Elland Road on the final Saturday before the festive season had nudged Leeds up to second in the table.

They were there on merit, too, with the manner in which Neil Warnock’s side had been comprehensively beaten suggesting United had the artillery to rein in even the Londoners during the second half of the campaign.

Coming on the back of a thrilling fightback at Burnley a week earlier that had seen a 2-0 deficit at half-time turned into all three points come the final whistle, the sky really did seem the limit for Grayson.

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With hindsight, however, that win at home to QPR was, even allowing for United’s 1-1 draw at Arsenal a couple of weeks later, to be the last true high point of his reign.

On Boxing Day and eight days after QPR had been dismissed, a two-goal lead at Leicester City was squandered and Leeds had to settle for a point. It was the same story two days later when Portsmouth escaped with a point despite seeming down and out at 3-1.

The defensive frailty that had peaked in the autumn when Preston North End became the first side to score six goals in a league game at Elland Road had returned.

And, despite wholesale changes in personnel at the back over the past year and a switch of goalkeeper in the summer, it never really went away, culminating in the four-goal salvo from Nikola Zigic that brought the curtain down on Grayson’s reign.