Danny Grainger crouches and runs his hand over the grass at his Cumbria Football Academy in Penrith. “It could do with a cut,” he says, lamenting the weekend’s relentless rain.

That task will not fall to a groundsman; Grainger trims the pitches himself. “I’ve been brought up as a farmer’s lad and I’m not scared to get my hands dirty,” he says. “When I started as a young player at Gretna I was the groundsman there with Rowan Alexander.

“I say it now to the lads at Workington – you get out what you put in. You can’t expect other people to do the hard work and you just sit on your high chair and reap the rewards.”

These are different days for Grainger who, despite only turning 33 last month, is venturing into his post-playing career. Upon retiring as Carlisle United’s captain in May, he was swiftly appointed manager at Workington Reds, who start their Northern Premier North West Division season against Pickering tomorrow.

Along with that, he runs his four-year old coaching business. Having returned to put down roots in the county when signing for Carlisle in 2014, Grainger set up the Cumbria Football Academy with former team-mate Gary Dicker. It has since expanded to cater for 120 kids from under-9 to under-16. It has two sides in the Junior Premier League, plays friendlies against professional clubs and has seen several success stories already.

“It’s doing exactly what we wanted it to do – to bridge that gap between the professionals and grass roots,” Grainger says. “We’ve had 16 graduates into professional clubs and four are on trial currently. I’ve also got two lads from our under-16s with me at Workington now. It’s not just about getting into professional teams. We just want people to play to as high a standard as they can.”

Grainger says it was a “long-term plan” that has come to fruition quickly and it helps that the academy now has its own facility on Inglewood Road in Penrith, having previously hired places like Frenchfields. “We were at a tournament and one of my under-10 dads said, ‘I’ve got a bit of land, do you want to have a look at it?’ I thought it was a throwaway comment but the next morning he sent me a video of the area on WhatsApp. I came up, had a look, and it was just a farmer’s field at that point – but it was perfect.

“He’s done all the work – ploughed it, levelled it, seeded it. We’ve taken a 10-year lease off him, Richard Threlfall, and when you have your own place it makes things a lot easier. The lads and lasses love coming here.”

It is clearly a labour of love, and Grainger says this applies equally to his family. “Heather, my wife, is of a similar mentality to me – if you want to be successful you’ve got to put the work in. Many times we’ll all be up here on a Sunday, our kids running around kicking a ball, Heather doing an odd job and I’m cutting the grass.”

Grainger has also used the facility to train his Workington players and the fruits of that particular labour will start to be seen tomorrow. After a 17-year playing career he decided it was time to pursue a long-held ambition to be a manager and the demands of that job, juggled with his academy, means he has not had time to miss pulling on his boots for Carlisle.

“I’ve never doubted my decision once,” he says. “All I’ve done a couple of times is thought about what I’d normally have been doing. On holiday I was on a sunlounger with a couple of beers instead of running around a random country. Last Friday I was watching the football on TV and Dolly [Carlisle physio Neil Dalton] sent me a picture of the lads on the bus to Swindon. I thought, ‘Aye, I’d have been sat in that traffic now’.”

Grainger says he did not yearn still to be there and this crystallised his decision to move on. “I had a three-year contract offer on the table from another club, but I wasn’t interested,” he says. “I always said I’d finish my career at Carlisle and I didn’t want to play somewhere else.

“I don’t know whether Carlisle would have offered me another contract in the summer. There were things that went on during the season that I didn’t like, and maybe situations that could have been dealt with better, but that didn’t affect my decision. I just felt it was the right time to finish playing and while I had opportunities to go into coaching, I’ve always wanted to be a manager.”

Grainger has known certain burdens through captaining his home-city club, but the buck truly stops with him now as Workington’s figurehead. He grins when asked about this increased pressure. “I love it,” he says. “It’s a drug. It’s so addictive. My first friendly [in charge], when we went to Whitehaven and won, I was standing there thinking, ‘this feels right’. When we got beat 3-0 at Consett I couldn’t wait to get back into the swing of things and try to correct what went wrong.”

Grainger talks about a philosophy of “possession football” which he hopes can restore the winning feeling to his west Cumbrian club who sorely need an uplift after last season’s relegation. He has enlisted his former United colleague Lee Fearn as fitness coach, but sees many of the challenges as mental.

“I think a lot of these lads are playing at a lower standard than they should be,” he says. “I watched a game last season and some looked a shadow of themselves. The more I got to know them, I realised confidence had been shot, and it’s hard to get out of that rut.

“The first thing they think about is the negative. Early in my career I was like that and it held me back. I got to a point where I decided to go the other way, and take the positive. I tell the lads to get it in their head that they’re going to give the ball away at some stage – nobody has a perfect game. You can’t affect that mistake, but you can affect what’s going to happen next.”

Grainger hopes a fresh start can help raise spirits in general at a club he insists is “levels” below where they should be. Workington have heaps of history but plummeted from the Evo-Stik Northern Premier last season and, after a summer when a new stadium scheme controversially hit the buffers, they will start 2019/20 at Borough Park again.

“It’s been a very frustrating summer for everybody,” he says. “To have the stadium talked about, with the Rugby League World Cup and all the positivity that would go with it, for that dream then to be pulled away, it was hard for people to accept.

“People were so confident about it that we didn’t end up starting work on the [Borough Park] pitch until June. But since then there’s been a new buzz about the place. That’s what you want to hear and create.” Grainger says this has been evident in the volunteers and officials who have helped get the old ground ready – painting, tidying, weeding. “I was there today with my dad and he couldn’t believe how clean, tidy and fresh it looked. That sense of pulling together is what you need.”

Grainger must adjust to the part-time game, where players may miss training due to work commitments and other unexpected challenges arrive. He had a long conversation with his old St Johnstone team-mate Paul Sheerin about this sort of transition, and will lean on the experience of Reds assistant Steven Rudd and stalwart captain Gari Rowntree. He also speaks regularly to Gavin Skelton, the United No2 and former Reds boss. “I’m not embarrassed to ask people for advice,” he says.

Grainger says he has “very little interest” in continuing to play but knows the reality of Workington’s level means his left foot, which delivered memorable moments for Carlisle and in Scotland’s top flight, will get some outings. “We’ve got seven weeks of Saturday-Tuesday games straight away, which I think is crazy for lads that are part-time, so I fully expect to play at some point. But I won’t be sitting here with 25-30 appearances. I’ve full belief in the lads that they can do the job for us.”

Grainger says he cannot yet know how he will deal with management’s relentless demands. “I’ve no idea whether I’ll be able to switch off,” he says. “My wife’s quite happy with me sulking – she knows what I’m like – and if something’s gone wrong, she knows she probably won’t see me again that night, because I’ll be sat there watching the video back, working things out.”

He smiles. “Whether that actually happens, or whether I just come home and open a bottle of red wine, I don’t know…”

Grainger says he would like to reach the highest level he can in management, but, at this early stage does not speak of any challenge other than Workington – and tomorrow’s dugout debut. “I fully expect to have nerves,” he says. “I haven’t had any in pre-season, but this is the real deal. There’s 90 minutes and points on the line.”