"There have been challenging days,” says Danny Grainger as he considers the unusual position of being, for the moment, out of professional football. The next opportunity will surely come soon for the former Carlisle United captain, Workington Reds manager and Falkirk assistant.

Since December, though, Grainger has had to figure out how to fill his Saturdays. “Since I was 15, I’ve had a purpose,” he says. “Every day I’ve woken up to go to training, or been coaching or preparing. At home, since leaving Falkirk, there hasn’t been that purpose for me to get up for and be driven.

“Monday to Friday I’m fine. I’m busy with the academy [the Cumbria Football Academy that Grainger owns and runs]. But Saturday at 3pm is hard. One weekend I sat and watched the scores coming in with Jeff Stelling…I was pulling my hair out.

“I think Heather [my wife] was just desperate for me to get out of the house. So I try to get out every Saturday and watch a football match, so I don’t sit and dwell and overthink things. It’s something you don’t want to experience for long, and there are days when you do doubt yourself. But it is a learning curve for me.”

Grainger is as open and honest about these testing times as he was during a characterful playing career and in his early forays on the other side of the fence. In 2019, United’s captain retired and went straight into the top job at Workington.

News and Star: Grainger pictured in Penrith this monthGrainger pictured in Penrith this month

After two seasons which saw promotion challenges halted by Covid, he moved to Falkirk to join their manager and an old colleague, Paul Sheerin, in Scottish League One. It was Grainger’s first coaching position in the pro game, but it came to an end before Christmas when Sheerin was sacked and 35-year-old Grainger decided to go with him.

The last three months have, then, given the Cumbrian opportunity to reflect on various aspects of football and life. “It was the first time I got to spend a proper Christmas with my family, which I absolutely loved,” he says. “My sister got married on New Year’s Eve, and I was able to enjoy that too without jumping out and heading to a game.

“It’s when the normality of life returns that you have to get your head round things. When you go into management, you have to accept that you’re going to lose your job. You just have to prepare yourself.”

Grainger says he has been in to a number of clubs to watch training and study how others operate, and these ventures have allowed him to consider what he might do next. The process also involves moving on from Falkirk.

News and Star: Grainger left his assistant manager role at Falkirk in December (photo: PA)Grainger left his assistant manager role at Falkirk in December (photo: PA)

“I always look back on positive things,” says Grainger, asked about the latter. “I’m not someone who’ll sit there and regret. It would be easy to say that, because I was only there six months, I should have stayed at Workington Reds.  But I learned a lot from the manager, worked in full-time football, and there were loads of learning curves.

“It reassured me that I want to work in that sort of environment. The meetings with sports scientists, psychologists, all the things people don’t see away from the club…I loved all that.

“I fully believe, if we had been given time, we would have been successful. We came together quite late, there was the Covid situation and other things behind the scenes that probably didn’t help us. But it’s a results business and the club felt it was the right time to change.”

Grainger had a game as caretaker boss after Sheerin was fired in the wake of a 6-0 defeat at Queens Park – but did not covet the top job himself. He describes this as a matter of principle.

News and Star: Grainger with wife Heather and children Oliver and Maisie, pictured in 2014 (photo: Jonathan Becker)Grainger with wife Heather and children Oliver and Maisie, pictured in 2014 (photo: Jonathan Becker)

“I went there for the manager, he showed a lot of trust in me, and if he leaves and I stay on, it looks like I’m saying, ‘The manager’s failed but I’ve been alright’. For me, if we failed – and that’s down to opinions – it was as a partnership.”

All the same, Grainger chose to walk away from a good job. Was this not hard? “I had good conversations with Heather about it. She completely understood where I was coming from. Football’s a ruthless business, horrendous at times, but if I can walk away from a situation and feel I’ve done the right thing, and none of my family question it…that’s enough for me.”

Grainger said his exit from Falkirk was amicable and handled appropriately, and he maintains he has no regrets. “When I made the decision it was a relief,” he adds. “I can remember driving up on the Monday morning and getting up to about Moffat and Beattock, and it was absolutely smashing down with rain. I thought, ‘I’m doing this for completely the wrong reasons’.

“It had put a lot of stress on me and Heather and the kids. I was away four or five nights a week and that wasn’t fair. I’ve been very lucky that my family have supported me all through my career, but they do come first in my life and they always will.”

News and Star: Grainger says his experiences with Workington (pictured) and Falkirk have taught him the importance of "connecting" with players (photo: Ben Challis)Grainger says his experiences with Workington (pictured) and Falkirk have taught him the importance of "connecting" with players (photo: Ben Challis)

The other aspect of the parting was how much professionally he could take from those six months. From both Workington and Falkirk, in fact, he says his biggest learning area has been “about trying to make the connection with players”.

“I want players to know they can approach me and talk to me, whilst knowing there has to be that distance,” he says. “It’s something I feel I’ve done well.

“The biggest thing on this side of the desk [management] is honesty. Sometimes I've been in dressing rooms where you know a coach or manager isn’t being completely open.

“Another thing to realise is that every player is different now. You can’t just blanket coach. I always think about Charlie Wyke [his former Carlisle team-mate] – people see Charlie as this big, aggressive brute, but Charlie needed love. He didn’t like being hammered. He needed an arm around him, and that’s how he reacted well.”

News and Star: Grainger says ex-United team-mate Charlie Wyke is an example of a player who needs "an arm around him" (photo: Louise Porter)Grainger says ex-United team-mate Charlie Wyke is an example of a player who needs "an arm around him" (photo: Louise Porter)

Grainger feels this area of management is more important and, in some respects, more difficult than ever. He has more to say about dressing room psychology. “Players don’t connect as much as they used to,” he says. “I’m still very close with lads I was at Hearts with, and at Carlisle there was myself, Luke Joyce, Jamie Devitt, Mike Jones, Nicky Adams, Jason Kennedy, Gary Liddle…you’d go out for a meal, everyone’s wives and partners knew each other. You don’t get that as much now.”

Why not? Grainger shoots back the answer.

“Mobile phones. Go into a dressing room and you’ll see lads on their phones. Also, contracts tend to be shorter and groups move on quickly.

“People find it really easy not to talk now. They interact more through social media and text messages. With all the mental health considerations now, you really want players to be able to talk to each other.

“As a manager or coach, I think it’s more important than ever to find those players who’ll connect with the group, make the most of that team spirit you need.”

News and Star: Grainger says that, at Carlisle, team-mates and their families would often socialise - but those interactions don't happen as much with players today (photo: Stuart Walker)Grainger says that, at Carlisle, team-mates and their families would often socialise - but those interactions don't happen as much with players today (photo: Stuart Walker)

Grainger will eventually take these thoughts and reflections into his next job. He says the last three years have crystallised his preference to manage rather than coach, and says he has been given a few possibilities to weigh up in the recent past.

“I’ve had some good contacts and conversations, but it’s not been quite right yet. I want to be patient for the right opportunity, but I’m conscious not to wait too long, because the longer you’re out the harder it can be to get back in. I’m not someone who'll say he has to go in at this or that level, either. I'm happy to go in and work my way up the ladder.”

When the right opportunity does comes along, what will it look like? “An ambitious club,” Grainger says. “I don’t just want to go somewhere and be happy to plod along. As a player, starting out at Gretna, I was blessed to have the career I did and play in the games I did. I want to manage at the very top. If you don’t have that ambition you’re never going to get anywhere with it.

“I also want to be somewhere there’s a pathway, a club that wants to see young players getting a chance. I feel that’s what we had at Workington. I want to try and create something.”

News and Star: Grainger's own football academy in Penrith continues to grow (photo: Stuart Walker)Grainger's own football academy in Penrith continues to grow (photo: Stuart Walker)

Grainger has certainly done that with his own academy, which continues to grow. The Cumbria Football Academy now has boys’ teams from under-8 to under-16, with two girls’ teams soon to be added. Some of the young players have joined professional clubs’ academies, while CFA teams have experienced games against sides at Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester City and many more.

“We work closely and make sure it works for both clubs,” says Grainger of those fixtures. “The experiences have been positive so far. I love seeing kids go into the professional game, but also just going to those facilities and having a smile on their faces.

“It’s about memories. I remember being at Carlisle as an under-11 and playing Man United on the back pitch at Brunton Park. We played Leeds when James Milner was there. These are things you remember. My boy [Oliver] is in Carlisle’s under-10s at the moment. I don’t coach him; if he asks my opinion I’ll be honest with him. But the main thing I tell him is ‘Enjoy it’. I just stand on the side and I’m proud to watch him.”

Grainger’s connections with Carlisle – a club he captained from 2014-19 – remain profound, and it is never surprising to see him linked with the manager’s job. “There’s no hiding from the fact I stood on the terraces watching Carlisle as a boy, and was lucky enough to captain the club, but so far it hasn’t been a possibility,” he says.

“Wherever my next opportunity is, time will tell. Just now it’s a case of sitting back and watching Simmo [Paul Simpson] doing well.”

News and Star: Grainger says his former club Carlisle United "feels like Carlisle again" since Paul Simpson's return as manager (photo: Richard Parkes)Grainger says his former club Carlisle United "feels like Carlisle again" since Paul Simpson's return as manager (photo: Richard Parkes)

Grainger attended Carlisle’s 3-0 defeat to Swindon in Keith Millen’s last game. Since then, the uplift under Simpson has been profound. “Prior to Simmo coming in it wasn’t great watching, and the atmosphere around the club wasn’t brilliant,” he says. “I then went to the Rochdale game [Simpson’s first home game since returning] and it was fantastic. It felt like Carlisle again.

“That’s nothing against anyone who’d been there previously. But it just felt like that connection with club and fans was back.”

Grainger made some special memories with United and his previous clubs, such as Hearts, with whom he won the Scottish Cup and played in European ties against Liverpool. He also came up against Lionel Messi in a friendly whilst with Dundee United – but says he “absolutely” doesn’t miss playing.

“I don’t miss waking up with aches and pains, having to sit in the physio room with Dolly [ex-Carlisle physio Neil Dalton],” he smiles. “The memories…I’ve still got those. I can still remember how it all felt.”

Grainger’s motivations are firmly on management now, while he is glad to see Workington on track for the NPL West promotion that Covid denied his team. He remains in touch with many of his former players and colleagues from that first, tantalising experience of the top job.

“As a player, I can’t remember many times I was nervous. But that first game with Workington, against Pickering, I was sat in my office shaking,” he says. “But that feeling of your team scoring, playing the way you want them to play and winning…it outweighs anything else. It’s what draws you back.”