Fleetwood Town’s Simon Grayson – Inheritor and Ideologue

He speaks like the first Yorkshireman ever born. Kind of sure, predictable, solid, comfortable in whatever studio or field he finds himself.

And yet, underneath that, he is quietly appreciative of this latest opportunity, the faith in his bluster, brawn and coaching know-how.

Simon Grayson is excited to be in the mix once more. He is, through his expression – one can tell – charged up, loathe to be at home again on the sofa, ready to survey the squad before him each passing week. In greater detail. With a raspish voice. Taking no passengers.

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So far it’s been a tough managerial bow – one win, three draws and two defeats. The promise of those four points from his first two games has quickly incinerated. What was seemingly a healthy mix of experienced individuals and talented youngsters has perhaps now become a squad glaringly, brutally and erratically shorn of its key assets during the Barton years: Ash Hunter; Ched Evans; Kyle Dempsey; Paul Coutts; Lewie Coyle; Ashley Eastham.

The first name on that list is a lesson in how to trade your Porsche 911 for a bag of beans. Hunter could be brilliant, inconsistent, tenacious, frustrating and undulating. But, as the resultant acronym suggests – a BIT F*cked Up.

Joey Barton put it this way on 3rd January 2020 after initially sending him out on-loan: “We felt he’d gone away from being a starter for us and he was, err…playing a really good cameo role early on in the season. 30 minutes, 20 minutes off the bench, causing havoc.

And then that kind of dwindled away due to what we believe is a lack of, a lack of…discipline. I can only call it discipline really. Ermm and, you know, he will be a loss for us, but you have to respect your craft, you have to respect your profession.

So now he goes down to, you know, a League Two side to see what the grass on the other side of the fence is. And I’m telling you now, no one does it as well as this football club. There’s nobody who does it better than us in every single department, whether it’s [the] training ground, nutrition, sleep, recovery protocols, off the field stuff, gym work, training.

There might be teams who do it as well as us, but there’s nobody who does it better at our level. Ermm, so he’ll have a huge reality check and he’ll have to decide at that point whether he actually wants to start taking on board the messages and turn himself and fulfil his potential. Or whether he wants to keep being, err…immature and listening to the wrong people and following the wrong advice.

And…he’ll probably end up working in McDonald’s or Tesco or wherever if he carries on down that pathway because, ermm, he just ran out of chances here.

Chances. Very much the footballer’s currency, his watchword. Even if sometimes under a vacillating, or too sure, or hypocritical eye. And now Hunter is no more. At least on the Fylde coast. Grayson’s dirty boots don’t have the luxury of kicking him up the ass and trying to exploit the exceptional reserves which every Fleetwood Town fan knew existed.

Ash Hunter was Highbury’s favourite son, its promise, its gold, frankincense and myrrh – the embodiment of graft, art and perilousness when at his peak. Unfortunately, he last seemed to enjoy the Highbury turf under John Sheridan who cleverly utilised him in a left wing-back role. Under Barton, there was no home. There could be no perpetual understanding, no bending the rules for the mercurial son.

Hunter used to chase down lost causes, but somehow became the lost cause himself. He must know that he has to blend discipline with his immense, innate, wiry virtuosity if he is to avoid becoming yet another nearly man on football’s interminable conveyor belt.

And so, Grayson must do without him and without the other names that added sheen, polish and grit to this Fleetwood side. He must quickly find a player whose progress the squad can lock on to.

Maybe 23-year-old Harvey Saunders with his speed, work ethic and eye for goals. Maybe Shayden Morris, the 18-year-old, silky Londoner with the twinkly look of Will Smith about him; black players largely non-existent during Barton’s reign.

Or perhaps more established names like 26-year-old Wes Burns, recently returned from injury and now Messiah-like in both face and feet. Or first signing Dan Batty, one of those young and old players (just 23) with an advanced footballing brain.

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The last time Grayson was remarkable as a head coach or manager was arguably during his time at Preston North End (2013-2017). And as a player, Leicester City (1992-1997) and Blackpool (2002-2006) were very much his homes.

But his most audacious coup d’état or managerial achievement happened on Sunday, 3rd January 2010 at Old Trafford in front of 74,526 spectators: Leeds United, a lowly third tier team at the time, turning over the old enemy 1-0 in the third round of the FA Cup.

I was there that day. It was cold, but bright. I remember walking to the ground with my younger brother and a mate. I remember meeting up with a work colleague and dispensing one of two free tickets I fortunately got from a firm we dealt with (a halcyon age when gestures weren’t considered to be bribes).

It was just gonna be a laugh, a probable thumping, a chance to witness these two sides on the same pitch again as I had done many times during the two decades I followed Leeds from 1987.

What occurred though, what unravelled, was an underdog’s paradise – the sheer stupefaction and bewilderment of a bankrupt club coming to Old Trafford and stuffing the posh candlesticks, trophies and a few bottles of Fergie’s favoured Tignanello into a holdall.

Grayson “told the lads before the game to go out and make themselves proud”. We knew we could hurt them, he added. If the man from Ripon, in his modern guise as Fleetwood Town manager, is to succeed in this tiny corner of England, then such memories have to be shared.

Because every Saturday and Tuesday is a David and Goliath battle for Fleetwood. Every ounce of sweat tells a story. Of preparation, belief and unflinching fight.

Jeff Weston is the author of Wagenknecht (ALL MEN crack up at 40) and Pitchside, Ringside & Down in the Table Tennis Dens.

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