Whenever Simon Grayson talks about the players that served him so well at Leeds United, he returns to the phrase, “diamond lad”.
Paddy Kisnorbo and Richard Naylor are diamond lads. Max Gradel is a diamond lad. Jonny Howson is not only a diamond lad but also “son-in-law material.” Andy Hughes is a diamond lad because “if he gave the ball away he’d try and make sure he twatted the next person who tried to come past him.”
Last year I had the pleasure of interviewing Grayson over a couple of pints of Guinness for Planet Football. We met in an uncompromising pub near Blackburn train station, in which the only other patron was a charming old gentleman with no teeth who would occasionally attempt to strike up indecipherable conversation whenever either of us went back to the bar.
For around two hours, Grayson beamed as he spoke about the close relationships he still enjoys with many of those players. He remains in regular contact with the likes of Luciano Becchio, Robert Snodgrass, Gradel and Kisnorbo. He had been a guest at Adam Clayton’s wedding the previous summer. Both Snodgrass and Gradel were eager to be reunited with him at Sunderland, only for family circumstances to prevent moves to the north of England. “You don’t really get that happening too often,” he says of those bonds he developed as Leeds manager.
Invariably, the conversation often turned to Jermaine Beckford, and in those moments it became apparent Beckford will always be much more than a diamond lad to Grayson.
“Fucking hell, who’s going to be captain?”
For much of Beckford’s career, he was cast as a misunderstood character. At times that was through no fault of his own. In Grayson, however, he found the man who perhaps understands him better than any other in football.
“You just have a connection with certain players that other people maybe can’t handle or manage,” Grayson says. “The perception of Jermaine was that he was difficult to deal with, he had this attitude and was sulking. But you couldn’t meet a nicer lad if you got on with him, and I did. He knew what he wanted from me, and I knew what I wanted from him.”
What both wanted was relatively simple: for Jermaine Beckford to score lots of goals for Leeds United. And he did. After a handful of games and a couple of loan spells while Leeds were still in the Championship, he ended each of his three full seasons in the first team with 20, 34 and 31 goals in all competitions.
But that wasn’t enough to make him universally adored on the terraces. Such good form was always likely to attract interest from clubs in higher divisions while Leeds languished in League One. Rejecting a new contract at the end of the 2008/09 season, and handing in a transfer request in January 2010, coupled with his languid style on the pitch, meant the striker’s commitment to the club was often questioned, no matter how many times he put the ball in the back of the net.
Despite his outrageous goal tally, his cause was not exactly helped by his record in the biggest games. In 2007/08, Howson was the hero in the play-off semi-final at Carlisle before Leeds drew a blank in defeat to Doncaster at Wembley. The following season, Beckford missed a penalty in the play-off semi-final defeat to Millwall.
“He was just part of a group that wasn’t doing as well as they could do,” Grayson says. “He overcame that and went from an average player to an icon at Leeds.”
From the start of Grayson’s first full season in charge, things appeared different. Over the first half of the campaign until the New Year, Beckford struck nineteen times in all competitions, scoring decisive goals that secured Leeds points in seven separate fixtures, including a 92nd-minute winner against promotion rivals Norwich at Elland Road.
When Leeds needed Beckford, Beckford stepped up. That famously continued into the start of 2010, as he wrote his name in folklore with the only goal as Leeds knocked Manchester United out of the FA Cup at Old Trafford and grabbed a brace in the subsequent 2-2 draw at Tottenham, securing a replay with a nerveless 96th-minute penalty.
“He went from an average player to an icon at Leeds”
Off the pitch, however, things began to change. With his contract set to expire and amid bids from Premier League Newcastle United, Beckford handed in a transfer request.
“It got to the end of the window,” Grayson says, “and I said to him, ‘Don’t let it affect your next big move. You’ll still get a big move, so play well until the end of the season and instead of getting, for example, £15,000 a week, you might get £30,000 a week.’”
But Leeds began to falter badly, and the goals began to dry up for Beckford. He failed to score in February over a period of six games. A flurry of three goals in two matches at the start of March was followed by another six-game drought.
After being eleven points clear of Norwich on December 28th, a run of three wins in sixteen fixtures between January 9th and April 13th turned the tables. Following a 3-0 defeat to Swindon at Elland Road, Leeds trailed Norwich by eleven points. Their chances of promotion were hanging by a thread, and Beckford’s relationship with the fans had completely deteriorated.
Matters came to a head in a 2-0 victory over Southend in April, in which Beckford was replaced before the hour mark with the scores tied at 0-0. By that point he had scored three goals in his last thirteen appearances and was alleged to have flicked the Vs towards the South Stand as another ineffective display was greeted by a chorus of ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’. Beckford didn’t need to ask Mark Aizlewood whether that was a good idea, and Grayson responded by leaving his top goalscorer on the bench for the trip to Carlisle three days later.
Reflecting on the decision to drop Beckford, Grayson now can’t help but laugh.
“We’d gone through that Easter period and had a couple of bad results. It looked like Jermaine had lost his way a little bit. I needed to do something to kickstart it, just jumpstart everybody in the group. We needed something a little bit radical. Dropping Jermaine didn’t cause too many problems because he hadn’t been playing too well in the two, three games in the lead up to that sort of period.
“Like any player he was disappointed, but he realised he wasn’t playing well. I thought, in that particular time, that he’d got his mind made up that he was leaving in the summer anyway.
“We were going through a rocky period and I think it just affected him more. He was thinking about the future because we did say we’d let him go for free in the summer; just do what you can to get us promoted.”
While recording victories against Carlisle and MK Dons, Leeds continued to stutter with Becchio and Gradel instated as a front two. Defeats to Gillingham and Charlton were only softened by results elsewhere favouring Leeds, meaning they went into the final day of the season knowing victory against Bristol Rovers would secure second place and automatic promotion. After he’d been left on the bench for the previous four fixtures, nobody arrived at Elland Road that day expecting Beckford not only to be in the starting eleven, but wearing the captain’s armband.
“Paddy was out. Richard Naylor was out. I’d made up my mind what the team was gonna be and Jonny was sub,” Grayson says. “I was walking my dog on the morning of the game and I knew my team in my mind and what I was going to do. The players didn’t know until an hour and a half before kick off.
“I was walking my dog thinking, ‘Fucking hell, who’s going to be captain?’ I just thought that he enjoys the limelight, he enjoys the big moments and he thrives on the real big games. I just thought, ‘Why not? We’ve got nothing to lose.’
“The captain’s role is insignificant to a certain degree, but to a certain individual that’s a massive fillip for them. When you tell him it’s like he’s twelve foot tall. All of a sudden Max gets sent off and Jermaine, who’s normally the one antagonising the opposition, this time he’s peacemaker trying to get Max off the pitch.”
The animosity towards Beckford was swiftly forgotten at the end of the game, as his 85th and final goal for Leeds United ended the club’s three year exile in the third tier of English football.
In the words of Grayson: “It was quite poignant that he scored the two biggest goals of that season.”
While that afternoon marked the end of Beckford’s relationship with Leeds, at least in the playing sense, he reserved some of the best performances of his post-Whites career for Grayson.
“When I went to Huddersfield the first person I wanted to take when I wanted a striker was him. I knew he’d work for me.
“Taking him to Huddersfield was a no-brainer. Even Preston, people were saying, ‘Why are you thinking about him?’ I rang Neil Lennon up about a different player at Bolton. He said, ‘You can’t have him, but you can have Beckford.’ I went, ‘Seriously?’
“‘You can have him. I don’t want him. I’ve got no time for him whatsoever.’
“I went back to Peter Ridsdale and said, ‘I’ve just been offered Jermaine Beckford. Make this happen because this will make us unbelievably better.’ He scored a hat-trick in the play-off final.”
At this point, Grayson returns to another phrase he has used often throughout the interview, but one that he has only used when talking about Beckford.
“You just have that connection with some players.” ◉
(artwork by Arley Byrne)
(This article is taken from The Square Ball magazine 2019/20 issue two. You can read the whole magazine by subscribing)