Current Club: Preston North End
Previous Clubs: Blackpool, Leeds United, Huddersfield Town
Honours: League One Play-Off Final 2014-15; League One Play-Off Final 2011-12; League One Play-Off Final 2006-07’
While Derek McInnes was the consistent favourite for the Sunderland job until his decision to reject the club on Thursday evening, Preston North End's Simon Grayson was never far behind in the betting stakes. Now, with McInnes opting to remain at Pittodrie, the 47-year-old is listed as the 5/4 odds-on favourite to replace David Moyes at the Stadium of Light.
But what will be bring to the club if he is chosen to lead Sunderland into its first Championship since 2006-07?
First and foremost, Grayson is vastly experienced at this level of football, managing 263 games across four clubs. He boasts a record of 89 wins, 87 draws, and 87 defeats; an impressive achievements considering the calibre of teams that he has managed. With Sunderland entering relatively uncharted waters, Grayson's Championship experience may sway the board's decision in his favour.
In 2008, he led Blackpool to 19th in the Championship, their highest Football League finish since 1978. They were 16th in December 2008 when he departed for Leeds, in League One at the time, who he guided into the Championship in 2010. Leeds finished that season in 7th after a run of just three wins in eight saw them fall out of the play-offs.
He dropped down a level to join Huddersfield in 2012, earning promotion, but was sacked after less than a year in the job after a 12-game winless run. Successive 11th placed finishes with Preston have repaired any damage made to his reputation at The Terriers.
The football played under David Moyes was among the worst seen at the Stadium of Light in a long time. Grayson would be unlikely to bring a major overhaul in terms of style of play to the club, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
His first aim when he joined Preston was to tighten up a defence that had typically struggled under various managerial regimes. The priority was to make North End difficult to break down and hard to beat. A solid backline, consisting of the likes of Alex Baptiste, Greg Cunningham and Tom Clarke has helped to lay the foundations for the club's success. Preston's record of 64 goals scored and 63 conceded points to a solid, safety first approach. Perhaps that's something that Sunderland need considering their defensive record in recent years.
Preston tend to line up in a narrow, compact 4-4-2 formation under Grayson, favouring a more direct style of play. He has proven to be a pragmatic and largely cautious manager. Some fans have lamented his approach to games, particularly in the first half. While this set-up provides protection for the defence and restricts the space in which the opposition can play, it can inhibit attacking play. Whether a more adventurous approach with the players and resources at his disposal was achievable is another debate. Either way, Grayson has certainly transformed the club's fortunes with consecutive 11th placed finishes.
The key to this set-up is to soak pressure and hit teams on the counter-attack; only three teams had less possession on average than Preston. The likes of Aiden McGeady and Tom Barkhuizen are crucial, providing width and pace when in transition. A combined 14 goals and 12 assists from 51 appearances in a less-than-adventerous side are impressive numbers, although it does also demonstrate that individual players are given the platform to express themselves within this rigid structure.
One of the main criticisms levelled at David Moyes was his inability to change a game, either through tactical or personnel changes. Grayson has demonstrated an ability to adapt to the opposition and the shape of a game throughout his time at Preston. Against Nottingham Forest in April, for example, he made a half time switch from 4-4-2 to 3-4-1-2 to help rescue a point. He said:
We went with a 4-4-2 to start with but Forest were dominant on the ball with Zach Clough in behind the striker and David Vaughan getting a lot of possession.
We wanted to get three in midfield to stop them playing while keeping two up front. What we did was to get our wing-backs pushed up against their full-backs too.
It was almost going man for man all over the pitch, we went three at the back against their front three. We were brave, we had nothing to lose and we tried to win the game.
Sunderland's transfer record has been nothing short of disastrous and has played a significant role in the club's current situation. The new manager is likely to work under financial restrictions, and Grayson's experience under similar conditions, having not been blessed with a large budget at Preson, may make him a stand-out candidate for the job.
Of the ten permanent signings made last season, only three commanded a fee. But it's arguably worked in his favour; Grayson has build a squad of exciting, hungry and young talent without the burden of living up to a significant transfer fee.
One area in which he has excelled in terms of recruitment is signing young players who are unlikely to be given an opportunity at 'bigger' clubs. Daniel Johnson was signed from Aston Villa for just £50K, while Ben Pearson joined from Manchester United for a fee of £100K; both have impressed in the Preston midfield and will see the club make a significant profit should they depart Deepdale. Similarly, Callum Robinson was convinced to leave Villa and join Preston once his contract ended; ten goals and six assists have made him an instant success.
As more and more money is spent by the Premier League's biggest clubs, a host of promising youngsters will find themselves without the opportunity to break into the first team and will be consigned to the scrapheap. It's an area which Sunderland should look to profit from, both financially and performance-wise.
Grayson is also not afraid to look at the lower levels of football. Goalkeeper Chris Maxwell and winger Tom Barkhuizen were signed from League One and Two respectively, with both establishing themselves as key members of the squad. Barkhuizen, signed for free from Morecambe, registered six goals and three assists in 17 games after joining in January.
Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle both joined from Irish side Dundalk on free transfers in the winter, with the former expected to be a key player next season, while Cork City goal machine Sean Maguire will join the club in July.
Sunderland need to show imagination in the transfer market and to change the culture surrounding the club's recruitment. Grayson's record suggests that he is very capable in that regard.
Would Grayson be a good appointment for Sunderland, then?
With the club entering relatively uncharted waters, Grayson's knowledge of the Championship makes him a strong candidate.
He is also held in high esteem by Preston fans, who "noticed a huge improvement immediately once Grayson took up his post and it was so refreshing to see PNE as a slick professional squad," while other fans have praised Grayson's influence on the club and his role in changing its culture:
Having watched events unfold at West Ham (Payet) and Chelsea (Costa) this week, it has made me take a look at this PNE team and really appreciate the current crop of players we have at the moment.
No matter what you think of certain players, I don't think we can accuse any player of shirking or not giving 100% at any time under Grayson (that I can think of). I personally haven't felt as close to a PNE team since the early 2000's, and you can tell they really care for the club and give absolutely everything for the manager and fans.
We should really enjoy this team while it lasts - I am genuinely excited for the rest of this season and beyond!
Too often, Sunderland have looked fragmented; a collection of misfit individuals not pulling their weight, either collectively or individually. Sunderland need a manager who can unite both a playing squad and the fan-base and bring pride back to the area; Grayson seems capable of doing so. His style of play, while not necessarily attractive, has brought stability and a sense of pride to Preston.
Grayson also has a strong record of signing young players and players from lower-level leagues. With finances set to be tight at Sunderland, this ability to find a bargain is likely to make Grayson an attractive option.
And having never been relegated in his career, he should at least bring some much-needed stability to the Stadium of Light...
On the other hand, while a steady hand, Grayson is unlikely to be viewed as an inspiring appointment. While his style of play has proven to be effective at Preston, it may not be what Sunderland fans want, particularly after a season of awful football under David Moyes. Results ultimately dictate success, but Sunderland must begin to establish a recognisable playing philosophy with this appointment. While Sunderland do need to find stability Grayson's style and pragmatism may limit what a club can achieve.
On that note, the fact that he has failed to take a club to the next level in the Championship may raise concerns. Realistic or not, the club will be targeting a return to the Premier League as soon as possible. While Grayson did have Leeds in play-off contention in 2011 and 2012, and Preston last season, a run of poor form saw his sides fall away from the top six on each occasion. Grayson has experienced success in terms of promotion, but each of his three promotions were from League One. Does he have the ability to go to the next level?
Poor runs of form have plagued Grayson throughout his managerial career. Along with his experiences at Leeds, a run of 12 games without a win saw him sacked at Huddersfield, while one point from their last six games saw Preston drop from 8th to 11th. A Steve Bruce 14-game winless run was tolerated n the Premier League, but it's hard to believe that such a run would be accepted in the Championship.