During Simon Grayson’s time in charge at North End, I think it’s safe to say that we improved every year under his management with the highlight coming on the 24th May 2015 at Wembley Stadium.
In this exclusive interview, we caught up with Simon about the defeat away at Colchester on the final day of the season, heading into one of the best play-off campaigns in history and of course, that day at Wembley. We discussed suits, tactics, best goals and much more.
The aim with this was to try and provide something a bit different for North End fans about one of the most successful times the club has had recently. If you enjoy this interview, I would really appreciate if you could press one of the social share buttons on the left of this piece and share it on your social media channels and with your friends and family. You can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, feel free to tag us in your posts.
Hi Simon, thanks very much for this. I’ll start with the game away at Colchester on the final day of the season.
What was the atmosphere in the squad like heading into that game and how were you and the staff feeling heading into it?
Everybody was feeling confident but I wouldn’t say they were overconfident. We knew they were desperate for the win and that we had been on a really good run for a few months at that point and we knew that one more win and we would be back where we wanted to be; the Championship.
We prepared for the game the same as we prepared for every other game that season; working on things they might hurt us with but mainly the focus was on what we could do to win the game ourselves.
One other thing that we did to help with our preparation was to fly down to Colchester. We’d done it several times in the season so it was something we felt would have helped.
Immediately after the Colchester game, where was your head at? How did you get yourself ready to go in and face the players and get them ready for the play-offs? How did the team talk go down?
Like everyone else, we were all devastated. The players felt they had let a lot of people down and it was a very quiet dressing room after the game.
As the manager, I said my words, nothing too critical in terms of the players but as a group, we tried to stay positive as we were still in the play-offs and had another shot at promotion.
At times like after the Colchester game, I suspect it’s important to have leaders and big characters in the dressing room. Who, if anyone, stood up in the dressing room or on the bus afterwards?
A few of the senior players said the odd word but it was mainly myself and Snods doing the talking. On the bus back to the airport I sensed the players were even more down than I had realised in the dressing room and I felt that I needed to talk to them again.
I had the bus pull over in a lay-by and I went over to the players. I told them what had happened had gone and we couldn’t affect that anymore but we can certainly still get promoted. I told them to imagine finishing 7th and not being in the play-offs, that would have been the end of the season but we still have a second chance at achieving our goal.
The final thing I sad was that winning the play-offs at Wembley Stadium, in front of all the fans, is the best way to get promoted so let’s go and do it.
How was the period after the Colchester game and before the players came back in for preparation? Was there time for the players to get away and have a day or two with family, and yourself and the coaching staff, or was it just from one game to the next in terms of preparation?
I gave the players the Monday off to spend with their families as we weren’t playing until Thursday.
Personally, I went out on my bike for a few hours on Monday morning to clear my head and to have some time to myself for thinking about how we would set up against a good Chesterfield team, what team I would pick and a few other things about our preparation.
When we went back in on Tuesday there was no talk of what had happened it was all about what can and will happen from here on out. They had certainly put the Colchester defeat to the back of their minds and were ready to focus on what was ahead.
How do you prepare for a two-legged play-off semi-final? You’ve been successful in the play-offs at League One level in the past, did that play on your mind this time around?
I tried to use my experiences from the previous play-offs I’ve been in and relay the key points of what the lads needed to do as a team to get through the upcoming games.
We concentrated on being hard to beat, winning our individual battles, working hard as a team and for each other and of course, when we got chances in front of goal we had to be ruthless.
How were you and the squad feeling before the away leg at Chesterfield?
I felt there was a determination, a focus and a desire from the squad to prove people wrong in training and going into the first leg. I was positive inside but I made sure I kept telling the players how good they had been all season and how we were going to get to Wembley.
Obviously it was early on when Jermaine put us ahead and we did well to come away with a clean sheet. What was on your mind when that goal went in?
It was just what we needed and of course what we wanted. For the rest of the game, I could see the desire to not concede, the team spirit that had been excellent all season was there in abundance that night.
The players had a hunger to not give up on an opportunity to still get promoted.
After the away leg, was everyone confident that we could go on and get to Wembley? Were there nerves or a mix?
We were confident but realised we still had a job to do. We had to be professional and do the jobs that we had done so well in the first leg again in this leg in order to be successful.
Going into a second leg with a chance of going to Wembley can be nervous but personally, I felt that was more coming from the supporters than the players. We were positive with our approach and knew we had a really good chance of getting to the final.
Did their goalkeeper getting injured and being ruled out of the second leg play into your thinking at all ahead of the game at Deepdale?
Not really, we knew if we played well we could beat anyone.
They had some chances early on, up until Jermaine scored. Had you started to think ahead to your half time team talk at 1-0 on aggregate? How much did that change, if at all, after Jermaine put us 1 up in the game?
They had some really good players and we knew they would pose us problems but we also knew if we could keep it tight we’d still get chances, especially with Jermaine and Garns up top.
To score and go two up on aggregate meant that the game would really open up and we could create more chances. We defended really well when we had to but we were ruthless when we got our chances.
In the second half when Paul Gallagher came off injured, what were you thinking?
Losing any player who is so valuable to the team is always a concern but we knew we had lads to come off the bench who would do what they could to help us to win the game.
When Joe Garner puts the penalty away, are you then thinking that’s it, we’re as good as through or were you trying to remain focused?
Joe’s penalty certainly made us realise that we were nearly there but we all had to stay focused, professional and ultimately we knew we still had to see the job through to the end.
Undoubtedly, Jermaine Beckford was the star of the play-off campaign, how pleased were you for him after his second goal dropped in over the Chesterfield keeper?
The goal sums Jermaine up, really. He sees things that other players don’t see and even if they do, they can’t execute it as Jermaine could and that’s why he was such a top player for me at a few clubs.
When his goal went in we knew that it was game over at that point and that we were in the final.
How did that goal compare to Joe Garner’s the season before against Rotherham? Which one was your favourite?
I like both the goals as they were both special goals, well taken with high quality. However, I think I preferred Jermaine’s as it meant we were going to Wembley but Joe did deservedly win a lot of awards for his goal.
In preparation for Wembley, you had the pitch at Deepdale altered, do you think that helped?
I wanted to do as much preparation as I could. Altering the pitch size did help, it made players realise how big Wembley was compared to Deepdale and it was that I didn’t want to be a surprise to them when the game came around.
All the work we did on Swindon was done at Deepdale instead of the training ground and I would say it certainly helped.
What was your thinking heading into the game at Wembley considering North End’s history in play-off finals?
Obviously, there was a lot of talk about PNE’s poor results in the play-offs in the past but I was constantly telling anyone who would listen that records were there to be broken and it was also something I drummed into the players.
I also told them that they would all go down in history as Preston North End legends if they were to win the game. The rest, as they say, is history.
Was the plan always to wear a suit then change into the signature tracksuit? It’s only something I noticed when watching it back on the replays.
I always wear a suit to games home and away and then I change into my tracksuit when the players go out for there warm-up.
I wear the suit as I’m representing the club and always wear a club tie. The only problem at Wembley is that you get introduced to people on the pitch, do the national anthem and what not and because of that, I only had a short period of time to run back down the tunnel and get changed before kick-off.
Fortunately, I was still fit enough to do that and get back out on the touchline with a few mins to spare before kick-off.
The set-up on the day at Wembley was a 4-3-1-2. We had Gally out wide left to begin with but no real outlet on the right. What was your thinking there?
I knew we had to be compact and have bodies in the middle of the pitch as their wing-backs would push onto our full-backs.
We knew they would have a lot of the ball and pass into areas where we had bodies to win tackles and hit them on the counter-attack. Every player knew exactly what his job was and they all did it perfectly on the day.
Also, we had goalscorers in the team who we knew would hurt them and ultimately, that’s what happened.
I’d just like you to sum up the game at Wembley from your own memories.
A clinical, professional, desire-driven, team performance. A proud moment for all the players and staff and it was a day that they will always remember and be remembered for by the North End supporters.
Days like that don’t come along too often so it was really nice to be a part of it and enjoy it.
Finally, just how important were players like John Welsh, Neil Kilkenny, Joe Garner, Paul Huntington and Tom Clarke with their work and everything they did for the team?
It was all about the togetherness of the group. I’ve tried to instill that into all my teams but you also need players to believe in it and lead it as well and in those lads you mentioned and many others we had at the club, we had that in abundance.
The respect we all had for each other, the lads were all willing to fight for each other too and as a team, any team, that will help and in this case, did help us to achieve success.
Ultimately, that’s why this group of players were successful and still are to this day. Whether they’re still at PNE or if they’ve moved on to other clubs.
Simon, thank you very much for this, it’s much appreciated and thank you for some great memories from your time in charge at North End.
No problem at all, Jake. It’s been fun and talking about the play-offs and my time at Preston North End certainly brings back fantastic memories which will live with me forever. I am extremely proud of what I did in my time at the club, even when things weren’t always going well I had great support from so many people.
So, on that note, I would just like to thank all of my staff. From Snods, my assistant, to the ground staff and everyone else in between who all played their part in making it such a fantastic time for me.
Also, a big thanks must go to the owner of the club, Mr Hemmings, and Peter Ridsdale who both supported me in so many different ways over the four and a half years that I worked with them. Ultimately though, thank you to the supporters who made me feel so welcome from day one, even to the day I returned to the club after leaving.
Players, managers and others leave clubs but supporters don’t and that’s why I’m so proud to have made you all so happy with the win at Wembley and all of the other great days we had in League One, the FA Cup and of course, the Championship.
Make sure you listen to my podcast with Jake and finally, to all Preston North End fans, thank you.