Grayson ticking the right boxes at Leeds
It has been six seasons since Leeds United tumbled out of the Premier League, but for the thousands who follow the club with such passionate devotion the absence feels like a lifetime.
The Premier League is still some way away but at least the decline has been stopped in its tracks. Three years spent in the third tier of English football came to an end on the final day of last season when Leeds gained promotion to the Championship.
Compared to their glories of the past under manager Don Revie in the 1960s and '70s, it is small fry but for the club whose dramatic fall from grace has become the ultimate cautionary tale for modern football, the return to the Championship marks the start of the club's revival.
The three years spent in League One has been a humiliation Leeds are anxious to ensure never happens again. Their decline began when they narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Champions League at the end of the 2000-01 season.
Under chairman Peter Ridsdale, they had borrowed money and bought players on the promise of the Champions League and it did not take long for the house of cards to come crashing down.
Relegation from the Premier League in 2004 was followed by another relegation to League One in 2007, after the new owner Ken Bates took the club into administration, incurring a 10-point penalty that ensured relegation to the third tier.
Manager Simon Grayson -- who is Leeds born and bred and a life-long supporter of the club -- understands the anguish suffered by the club's supporters.
In the space of a few short years, they have seen their team play the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and AC Milan in their run to the 2001 Champions League semi-finals, only to face the other side of the coin with trips to places like Hereford United and MK Dons.
As he faces life in the Championship, having masterminded the team's promotion last term, Grayson shares the supporters' determination that the mistakes of the past cannot be repeated. "The club was in League One for a reason but, as a Leeds fan, it was heartbreaking," he said.
"The key was using it as a motivation and inspiration to get out of League One. It's about the prestige of the club and that is why getting out of League One was so huge for everyone at Leeds."
The humiliation over, it now falls to Grayson to lead the club back to the top flight. Already, former players such as Peter Lorimer are talking of Leeds being a top-six Premier League club, which is quite some goal considering United finished 46th in England last season.
However, Grayson, who kickstarted Blackpool's current revival before joining Leeds, has done a remarkable job in his 18 months at Elland Road. His achievement was recognised by chairman Bates when he handed the 40-year-old former Leeds trainee a new three-year contract last month.
The paradox for Leeds is that their trials have dampened expectations, yet the sheer scale of the club and its support demands only the very highest of ambitions.
The club's technical director Gwyn Williams said: "You need to have ambitions. You have to aspire. Let's do it now, if we can. Why not? We hope to get there as quickly as possible. But we also know it is our first season back in the Championship. We need to get in there and consolidate.
"There will be a lot of teams thinking like us. We know that. The bottom line is we have to keep our heads above water, to make sure we get to 52 points to avoid relegation. Then, if we can get to around 65 points, we could make the play-offs. And if we have a really good season, then hopefully we can finish in the top two."
Grayson's task is not helped by the need to radically change his team this summer following the departure of five loan players. Defender Alex Bruce became the club's eighth new recruit when he signed from Ipswich last week.
Grayson has bought a completely new back four in Paul Connolly from Derby County, Fede Bessone from Swansea City, Bruce from Ipswich and Neill Collins from Preston North End, who are likely to line up in Saturday's Championship season opener against Derby in front of another new signing, goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel from Notts County.
Last season's Player of the Year Patrick Kisnorbo ruptured his Achilles tendon during the final weeks of last season and is not expected back in the centre of defence until November at the earliest.
The attack is also a major headache, having lost Jermain Beckford, who scored 31 goals last season, to Everton. His replacement is free signing Billy Paynter, who scored 29 goals for Swindon last term but has picked up an injury in pre-season.
Winger Robert Snodgrass is also injured, leaving Grayson facing the prospect of putting out an untried team against Derby on Saturday.
Pre-season results have been encouraging after a shocking 4-0 defeat to League Two side Bury, with wins over Brann Bergen and Hartlepool followed by a morale-boosting 3-1 victory over Wolves last weekend.
"Pre-season has gone really well with the exception of Bury. But that may have been the kick up the backside we needed," Grayson said.
"There's been a lot of boxes ticked right. They've done three sessions a day sometimes and they've worked really hard and done everything that has been asked of them." (© Independent News Service)