Phil Smith: Sunderland will be a radically different challenge for Grayson but his record deserves respect

New Sunderland manager Simon Grayson.
New Sunderland manager Simon Grayson.
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The biggest compliment you can pay Simon Grayson’s work at Preston North End is the reaction from the Deepdale faithful, where the feeling is of an opportunity missed and a journey cut short.

Failing to win in the last six games of the Championship season was a bitterly disappointing end, an 11th-placed finish perhaps not quite doing justice to a campaign that at one point looked like turning into a most unlikely play-off push.

Strikers Jermaine Beckford and Eoin Doyle fighting on the pitch in December caught the headlines, but, on the whole, this was an impressively tight-knit squad punching well above their weight.

On a shoestring budget, a recruitment record impressively matched low-risk, low-cost acquisitions with some calculated risks.

While the football has not perhaps been eye-catching, the likes of Aiden McGeady and Tom Barkhuizen added genuine flair on the flanks. If his Sunderland side can play like his Preston outfit, some fans may be pleasantly surprised by what they see.

Grayson is also fondly remembered at Leeds United, where his sacking is seen as a ‘what if’ moment by fans. From the brink of the play-offs, it took four seasons and a plethora of managers before the Elland Road side could even consider the top six again.

Grayson may not be the high-profile appointment many were hoping for, and it is certainly true that a Roy Keane-esque arrival to bring wavering fans flooding back to the Stadium of Light would have been most welcome.

The collapse in takeover talks put an end to that, however, and the climate now could not be more different to the autumn of 2006.

Sunderland will be relieved that they have, in their eyes, found a manager who can bring stability and prevent the kind of plummet that looked increasingly likely as uncertainty continued.

Grayson will bring a contacts book well suited to recruiting for a Championship season in rapid fashion, and a knowledge of the teams in the league that should help the club recover some of the ground they have lost in the five torturous weeks since David Moyes finally brought an end to his time on Wearside.

The big question, to be answered in the coming weeks, is the same as it was for Derek McInnes and every one of the other names mentioned in connection with Sunderland.

What money will there be to spend?

Grayson will inherit some talented youngsters, and a plethora of players not good enough for the Premier League but who could yet prove effective in the second tier.

Some will leave, but some will have to stay with interest in short supply from elsewhere.

Motivating those players, ground down by a difficult and divisive season, yet still well paid and with apsirations to play at a higher, will be one of Grayson’s biggest challenges and one that we have no real guide as to whether he will be able to manage.

It will be that task that makes or break his tenure, and defines whether he is able to translate his work at the likes of Preston to a clubs with the expectation and scrutiny of Sunderland.

The task ahead is a significant one, and he will make a brave call in leaving the security of Preston for it. The rewards, as he will know, have the potential to be vast.