Photo: Workington AFC

It was a playing farewell to ‘his’ club at the end of last season, though ex-Carlisle United captain Danny Grainger did get to retire on his own terms, and with his Workington AFC flying high almost a year on, the first-year manager feels suitably vindicated.

The rise and demise of Gretna. The sublime of cup glory and European football, to the well-publicised ridiculous at Hearts. The ‘full circle’ feeling of playing his final few seasons at the club he supported, Carlisle United. Seventeen years in professional football didn’t leave Danny Grainger short-changed when it came to wholesome and colourful experiences.

The 33-year-old speaks of his career as two parts, illustrating the difference he felt as a player and the clarity he gained by the second half. If his step into management signals the third phase of the trilogy, it is off to a flyer.

The former Dundee United and St Johnstone left-back was named as Workington AFC’s new manager last May, and with his debut season on the home strait, the Reds are currently leading the BetVictor Northern Premier’s North West Division. He explains how he has set about his work with empathy, but no compromise on high standards.

“I’ve tried to just keep it as professional as possible. With training, obviously I understand lads have work commitments and that, but if lads can’t make it, unless there’s a real excuse, there’s implications on it, because I feel that if you’ve got a committed team that are training twice a week, then you know it will bode well for success.

“It’s little things. I was told I couldn’t play the way I wanted to play in non-league, and I’m very stubborn in that side, in that I want to play a certain way, and I’m sticking to my guns.

“I think this year we’ve been lucky in that we’ve got some fantastic players who’ve really bought into the way we wanna play.”

While the preference for possession-rich build-up and a style centred on ‘footballing’ principles has increased down the divisions as free-flowing examples at the top level have famously flourished in recent years, the blunter approach more classically associated with non-league is not under any immediate threat of extinction. His side have had to marry aesthetics with some of the grittier elements, but Danny’s Workington have held firm in their ideals as the season has gone on.

There is always purpose behind what they do, and it has been bearing fruit, with the Reds scoring 68 goals in their 28 league games, and 14 in their last three. Scott Allison has been the chief beneficiary, hitting the 20-goal mark to become leading scorer in the division.

Although a managerial newcomer, UEFA A-qualified coach Danny has had the Cumbria Football Academy for U8-16s set up in his native Penrith in the past few years. Having started it with then-Carlisle teammate Gary Dicker, he is currently director alongside Andy Milburn.

At the time of his playing retirement, that he would have both feet in the rough waters of non-league management when 2019/20 came around was unknown to him, so how rapidly did it unfold?

“Obviously I’ve got my own academy and I was concentrating on that, and the academy had grown quicker than I ever expected it to, and I felt like I wasn’t able to put my all into playing and my academy. So something was always going to have to take a hit, and I felt it was the right time; I spoke to my family, there were little niggling injuries I was picking up and getting frustrated with.

“So when I finished at Carlisle and the Workington job came up, it was something that crossed my mind as a great opportunity to get my teeth into management, as well as running alongside keeping my academy growing. I’m a big believer in timing’s everything and it felt like it was the right opportunity.

“I spoke to the Workington board and went through the interview process, and they felt I was the right person to take the club forward.”

After half a lifetime, he had been looking forward to finally enjoying a summer without the shackles of an impending pre-season as a player. While taking over a team fresh off relegation from the Northern Premier Division meant no lack of matters to occupy the thoughts, there was still ample opportunity to bask in the break.

“It was a bit different; normally I’d go away with my family and spend two weeks running around a random holiday resort or something like that. This year I was able to sit at a sun lounger with a notepad and pen and a beer in my hand.

“It was a nice one to be able to go away with my family, being able to go out and enjoy meals, have plenty of wine and beer with my friends and family, being able to play with my kids in the pool for hours upon hours. It was very different, but one that I loved.”

Although undoubtedly welcome to throw the constraints away, the initial novelty can soon wear off for countless long-time pros embarking upon retirement. With his coaching endeavours to go with launching headlong into management, Danny was thankfully some way clear of finding himself lost.

He is also a player at Workington, which he says is largely for contingency, though he started (and was booked!) in last night’s Integro League Cup win over Ossett United, which put them into the quarter-final. The primary focus, though, is leading as a number one at Borough Park, and the shift from pro player has so far proved more than agreeable for him.

“Yeah, fine. To be honest, it was the right time for me to finish.

“Waking up in the morning, I’m in no pain, whereas when I was playing, I had my ankles, my knees, my hips, everything was still aching the day after training. The transition from playing to management has been great, I’ve loved it.

“It’s been testing at times, but the biggest plus side of it for me is I’ve never once looked back and gone ‘did I do the right thing, have I retired too early?’ So that’s given me the answer even more and proved that it was the right time to walk away from it.”

It has also not been a step fully into the unknown, with a local club he was well acquainted with. He was the successor to Lee Andrews, who stepped down at the end of a very obviously difficult 2018/19 season that also included their former player Gavin Skelton leaving in the New Year to return to his Carlisle United coaching role just six days after being appointed as Reds boss.

A Football League club in decades gone by, a return to the seventh tier at the first attempt is the current order of the day. There are also changes in the works, with the recent announcement that vice-chairman/community director Ross Peacock and chairman John Mackay are stepping down (and six directors joining the board). Danny was quick to express his gratitude to the pair for the faith invested in him as a rookie manager.

He signed a new deal, along with his staff, in mid-November to take him through until the end of next season, and he feels it is a club full of plus points.

“The club’s got a great core; the fans, people that want the club to be successful, players and everything like that. It really is a great club and it’s got a great chance of progressing more each season.

“To take 350/400 fans to an away game is unbelievable at this level. The fanbase is massive for the club to be successful, the club itself wants to be successful, and then the players as well.

“It’s got a lot of things going for it, and if we keep tidying up on the professional side and bits here and there, I’m sure we can be successful together.”

He has had his firsthand experiences of exactly that during his career. Coming through at the time of three successive Gretna promotions – in the days of Kenny ‘The Good Doctor’ Deuchar, Colin McMenamin and company – he figured most prominently as they reached the Scottish Premier League in 2007.

The 2006 Scottish Cup finalists were famously liquidated in 2008, after financial peril following the ill health and withdrawal of backing from late owner Brooks Mileson. Danny went on to finish 5th in the top division with Dundee United in successive seasons, with an enjoyable two-year spell at St Johnstone, but the 2012 Scottish Cup success with Hearts was something quite special.

The Jambos obliterated bitter Edinburgh rivals Hibernian 5-1 in front of 51,041 at Hampden. On a day when Hibs boss Pat Fenlon was sent to the stands, Danny scored from the spot to put Paulo Sérgio’s side 3-1 up – his first Hearts goal.

His two Tynecastle seasons included Europa League ties with Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, with draws earned away to both. Only a Luis Suárez goal in the dying minutes at Anfield denied the Jam Tarts, leading 1-0, extra-time in their play-off second leg.

After St Mirren and Dunfermline, it was home in summer 2014 for ‘Mr. Carlisle’. Signing an initial one-year deal at Brunton Park, he stayed for five.

“I’ve been very lucky, I’ve played for some great clubs. At Dundee United, I absolutely loved it there, made friends for life.

“It’s hard to say one special time, because I’ve had two or three real important moments. Playing for Hearts, I absolutely loved my time up there playing for a club like that, then coming home and playing for Carlisle.

“Then obviously going into management and doing well in my first season. Playing for my hometown team’s always been special for me, my friends and family being close by and being able to come and watch me week in and week out.

“Being able to settle and set up my own roots, that’s a big plus for me.”

Scoring the Cumbrians’ 5000th Football League goal as he headed home Nicky Adams’ corner against Chesterfield two seasons ago, he had become captain during Keith Curle’s tenure. Earlier on, there was a League Two relegation battle in his first season, before a play-off semi in year three.

That 2016/17 campaign also saw him score six games in a row in October/November. He had to wait until May for the next, but it was a penalty double that helped beat Exeter City 3-2, sealing their play-off place in front of 735 travelling fans down in Devon. Beaten 6-5 on aggregate by those very opponents in their subsequent semi-final, Carlisle challenged again in the next two seasons but ultimately didn’t make the top seven.

Time at eight clubs (including Brechin City on loan) meant numerous managers to work under, and as Danny describes, what he needed to help bring the best out of him changed over time.

“I think every manager was different, to be honest with you. In the first half of my career, I was someone who needed reassuring quite a lot, and Derek McInnes was probably one of the best ones in my career for that.

“The fact that he reassured you that you were doing the right things, week in, week out, he was very good at that. The latter stages of my career, I probably needed a bit of a rocket sometimes!

“I probably got a bit comfortable sometimes and managers like Jim Jefferies, Paulo Sérgio were very good for it, and Craig Levein as well. I think I was very different in the two halves of my career.

“I let things get to me more in the first half, and after my injury (a long-term knee lay-off at Hearts), I sort of looked at things very differently.”

There were some ‘flukes’ with his right foot in amongst his 34 goals for Carlisle, though the last of the lot was a left-footed free-kick in the 6-0 win over Oldham on Boxing Day 2018. Perhaps it was a fitting way to notch his final effort – in front of family at home on a day synonymous with football in England.

Parenthood tends to be a fairly useful starting point, but even that doesn’t fully prepare someone for management! The good of the team is high on the agenda for plenty, but a footballer’s career is chiefly geared towards personal goals: keeping yourself in the right condition, trying to reach your highest level, wondering if there is a new contract in the offing, and so on.

As a manager, you suddenly become responsible for a dressing room’s worth (at least) of players. Although he had a leadership role as a player, it is something else entirely when it’s you in the hotseat, so has Danny found himself getting involved in some surprising tasks along the way?

“Me and the assistant manager (Steven Rudd) go over as much as we can to help with day-to-day duties, whether that’s helping with the pitch, tidying up the club. Whatever it is, we’re quite happy to pitch in.

“I wouldn’t say surprise, because when I first started up at Gretna it was part-time, and I’d seen what the manager had to do there. I’m not someone who’s scared to get my hands dirty either.”

‘He identifies completely with what we want our group and the individuals within it to be’ were the words Keith Curle used after Danny agreed a contract extension at Carlisle at the end of 2015. ‘Professional’, ‘arrogance and confidence on the pitch’ and ‘determination to succeed’ came next.

The former United number 3 is giving it the same approach as when he played – all in. In the sparse spare time, he finds something football-related helps him to detach a little from…well, football. Best to let him explain.

“Well at the moment, with my own academy, we’ve got our own training facility now, so I absolutely love looking after the facility itself and how to keep the pitches maintained. As much as it’s not switching off away from football, I do love that.

“That’s something in the last few years I’ve started to enjoy and I feel like it gives me a break away from those other commitments. Football and the family side of it is something that I would do every minute of the day if I could.”

 

Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…

When did you want to start coaching/managing?

To be honest with you, quite early in my career, but then I did my ACL when I was 26. I didn’t really get back to where I wanted to be after my injury and sort of fell out of football and lost any sort of drive to be coaching or anything regarding football. Then I went and rejoined one of my old managers (Jim Jefferies at Dunfermline) and got a bit of a spark back for my football, and when I moved back home into Carlisle, me and Gary Dicker set up our own academy. We decided that was something we were keen on doing, so it was when I got to 28/29 that I really sort of got the drive and the passion back for coaching, doing my badges and things like that since then, and making sure I was as qualified as I could be and giving myself the best opportunity.

Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?

I’m the same as when I was playing – match days is what I look forward to. I enjoy training, I enjoy being able to put a session on where the lads are preparing for a game, but the match day itself is obviously the be-all and end-all to see what you can do and if your week’s work can come to the forefront and get you the result on a Saturday.

Will you ever take part in training, in terms of actually being in the session as an active part, like an extra player?

I do try and stay out of the session myself. Other people are different, but me as a player-manager, I very rarely think that trying to be both at the same time works. I’m very lucky in the fact I’ve got my assistant Steven Rudd who’s a fantastic coach as well, so if I ever do have to get involved with a match or anything like that, I leave substitutions and everything up to him. I don’t think a player-manager works when you’re trying to manage a team while you’re playing as well.

(Is registering as a player more of a short-term measure?) It’s only an emergency if I’m needed really. We had a bit of an injury-hit squad a couple of weeks ago, lads were away with work, and I’m happy to step in if we need an extra body. In the League Cup, I’ve used myself a bit more, with some of the younger players on the pitch. It’s easier to get your message across when you’re right there and talking them through situations. It sounds quite contradictory when I say you can’t manage and play, but some of the younger lads find it easier when you’re there rather than shouting at them from the side.

Favourite ground that you’ve visited or would like to visit

For me, Tynecastle. I loved my time at Carlisle, loved my time at Hearts, but the atmosphere inside Tynecastle when it’s at its best is something that’s very special. Obviously Celtic Park and Ibrox are unbelievable stadiums, as well as Anfield and White Hart Lane that I’ve played at, but on the day, if there’s an atmosphere that you want to be in front of, for me in my playing career, it was always Tynecastle. Even as an opposing player, it was amazing. Something like Anfield on a European night was special as well and you’d love to be able to stand on the sideline there as well someday.

Favourite player to watch (past or present)

When I grew up as a Carlisle fan, the likes of Richie Prokas and Dean Walling were always players that I looked up to. On a global side, believe it or not, I was a young, tricky winger, so someone like Ryan Giggs I always looked at as the type of player you would wanna be.

And how would you sell the club to let’s say Ryan Giggs, if you were trying to sign him for Workington (in his prime)?!

How do you sell that to someone like Giggsy?! No, it’s obviously hard. As I’ve said to every player, I’ll always be honest with them. I want them to enjoy football, that’s the main thing. If Workington’s right for them then they’ll come and enjoy it. I don’t try and sell anyone a fairy tale. We know where Workington is and it’s hard to sell sometimes because it’s a long way away from your cities and stuff like that, and that’s why we try and produce our own, but if you’re looking at what you’re trying to get across to anybody, it is literally that they’ll get honesty and they’ll come and enjoy it. That’s all we want the lads to do.

Pre-season tour anywhere in the world

You look at all the best teams in the world going to Dubai and places like that, you see the facilities they’re getting out there, and if money was no object, obviously you’re gonna go to somewhere like that. If you want to go for games, I would always look to go to Germany. I went when I was at Hearts and the atmosphere you’re playing in front of, that was Bundesliga 2 that we played against and it was incredible, so that’s somewhere I would like to go in pre-season.

Most challenging/frustrating part of your job

I think the biggest things that I’ve found, one is that football isn’t the primary source for these players, and that’s what I found hard, because obviously I’ve been quite lucky that football’s been life and everything was around football. That’s not quite the case here, as much as the commitment that I get off the lads is unbelievable. Sometimes work comes first, which is completely understandable. I’d love more time with the lads, be full-time hours and things like that. The final one would be when you’re trying to sign a player at this level, it’s hard because of location, so we need to make sure that we can offer them something different, and again, that’s why we don’t sign many boys from outside of the county. We try and make sure they’re happy and enjoying playing for Workington and not worrying about having to travel that bit further.

Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest

The biggest character in probably my football career was Paulo Sérgio when I was at Hearts. Portuguese manager that had his own style and he was very different to what any of us were used to when he first came into Hearts. He had the respect in the fact he was a fantastic coach, but you felt like he always had your back and wanted the best for you. It was always the players that mattered first and that is obviously what you want as a player. I was quite lucky to work with managers like Craig Levein, Derek McInnes. As far as characters, though, I’d have to say Paulo, because you couldn’t predict what was going to happen next with him.

Most embarrassing moment as a manager/coach/player

Probably more in the previous few weeks actually. I came in at half-time when we were playing at home and went off the rails really, told them how bad they’d been. We went out second half, eventually won the game, but when I watched the video back, it was probably the complete opposite of what I’d said! We played fantastically well, created many chances, and I don’t know what I’d seen in the first half, but I had to go in on the first day back in training and sort of swallow my pride and say ‘look lads, I was wrong there.’

Your routine on a match day

I like to be early in what I do; when I’m arriving at the ground I like to be there a good few hours before the rest of the lads. I like being organised on a match day, I don’t like feeling like I’m rushing around. I used to have odd superstitions when I was a player, but now I’ve gone into the management side I’ve probably gone away from it. If we’d won a game comfortably and played well, it was what I’d eaten that day, I’d try and sort of mirror that. Just all those little superstitions that probably had absolutely nothing to do with the game itself but it just gives you a little bit of peace of mind knowing that you’d prepared the same way as when you won the game previously.

One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist

I like a bit of old-school dance, so I’d probably go Tiësto ‘Adagio for Strings’. That’d be the one that I’d have to put on there.

Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you

It was something I was given in the second half of my career, and it was just that mistakes happen. A lot of people go through football careers and even life in general and worry about a mistake. I say to our players now, mistakes happen, you can’t affect a mistake but you can learn from it. I think if I was told that a little bit earlier in my career it probably would have helped me more in the first half of my career. I think it was just something I was reading when I was starting my coaching badges and it just stuck with me. I was always very critical of myself, I was always overthinking things, probably over-analysing the negatives and not enough of the positives.

If you could have some time with any manager, past or present

There’s probably three that spring to mind. Sir Alex Ferguson, obviously what he achieved and people I’ve spoke to who worked with him say that his man-management was second to none. Then obviously the two best ones at the moment in (Pep) Guardiola and (Jürgen) Klopp. I’m a big fan of what Guardiola does and his beliefs and everything around football, so I would love to be able to sit down and pick his brains for a little while.

Any misconceptions about you, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?

Whenever I’ve spoke to people that I’ve played against and then become teammates, they’ve always said they disliked playing against me and thought I was a bit of a…what’s the word that I can use?! Something unpleasant anyway! Then when they’ve actually got to know me they’ve realised that I’m actually not a bad person. Wherever I’ve been I’ve worn my heart on my sleeve and I would do anything for a win for that club. I think sometimes I could probably cross a line, or two, but it was always for the betterment of the club I was playing for.

And finally, what’s the best thing about having this life around football? When you wake up and football’s your focus for the day, do you still get that same buzz as you always did?

Yeah, it is, and it’s strange, it’s a very different buzz from when you’re playing. People have always said to me, even managers I speak to now, it’s a different buzz; you enjoy it for a shorter time and then you’re looking at the next side of it. That is completely right. As soon as the game’s finished, you’re buzzing for probably an hour/an hour-and-a-half, and then you’re starting to think about ‘what we doing this week regarding whoever we’re playing next?’ We won our derby (against Kendal Town) 6-0 last weekend and then on the Saturday night and the Sunday morning you’re speaking to the coaches and the assistant manager thinking about what you’re gonna do the next week. One thing I would say is the buzz is definitely still there, but it’s a completely different side of it. Even when you’re losing, you’re analysing rather than feeling sorry for yourself.

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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