As captain, centurion and goal machine with one of the only two unbeaten teams in England this season, Hearts hero Danny Grainger is enjoying an unlikely flourish at the business end of his career.
Indeed, the 30-year-old’s endlessly fulfilling two-and-a-bit-year stint with local club Carlisle United would probably never have been able to happen if it wasn’t for a pep talk from Jim Jefferies which convinced him not to hang up his boots almost three years ago.
Grainger was at a low ebb towards the end of 2013 after almost 18 months of adversity. He had been devastated to leave administration-hit Hearts that summer after being sidelined for most of his last season at Tynecastle by anterior cruciate ligament damage – the worst injury of his career – and his attempted resurgence at St Mirren wasn’t going to plan as he struggled to regain form and fitness under Danny Lennon and Tommy Craig.
Grainger, who had hitherto spent his entire career in Scotland, felt his career was dying a death and had, by the age of 27, prepared himself for retirement until Jefferies, the manager who took him from St Johnstone to Hearts in 2011, intervened in January 2014 and persuaded him to join him at Dunfermline Athletic, then battling to get out of League One.
“While I was at St Mirren, I was on the verge of chucking it all and coming back home and getting back to a normal life,” Grainger told the Evening News. “I was going through the worst period of my career. I’d done my knee and I wasn’t enjoying my football at St Mirren. That was nothing to do with the club – my injury wasn’t right, I had a fallout with the assistant manager and I wasn’t featuring enough. It felt like things were fizzling out for me and I was ready to take my family back home to Cumbria. I was talking about working for some of my friends’ companies and helping out on my dad’s farm.
“But I had a conversation with Jim Jefferies and he told me not to chuck the towel in just yet and to come to Dunfermline and enjoy my football with him again. I decided to give it one more crack, and I’m so happy I did. I owe a lot to him. He gave me my time at Hearts and he played a big part in stopping me chucking.”
It was that four-month stint at Dunfermline that got him back on track and allowed him the platform from which to earn a move to his local club Carlisle in June 2014. Fast forward almost two and a half years from his arrival at Brunton Park, and he has made more than 100 appearances as skipper, scored 14 goals – including three in his last three games – and played a major part in transforming his team from relegation battlers two years ago into promotion contenders at this point. Along with Tottenham, the Cumbrians are the only team in England yet to suffer a league defeat this season.
“When I was at St Mirren, I couldn’t even imagine being in the game the following year, never mind two or three years down the line,” he said. “Captaining my local team and making over 100 appearances for them didn’t seem possible when I was at St Mirren. The fact I was so close to chucking it makes you appreciate this all the more. I’m the fittest I’ve been and I’m enjoying myself so hopefully I got a few years left yet.”
The steady progress of Carlisle since Keith Curle replaced Graham Kavanagh as manager and appointed Grainger captain in September 2014, just months after he had arrived, has given him no end of satisfaction. “I’d always wanted to captain a club but to captain your local club makes it that bit extra special,” he said. “The manager gives me a lot of responsibility around the dressing room and I’m really enjoying the role. Throughout my career, I’ve got on well with most people I shared a dressing-room with so I feel like I’m quite approachable among the lads. Two years ago, when I first arrived, we were in a negative place. The club had just been relegated from League One, the manager had just been sacked, and everything seemed to be going against us.
“But we’ve picked up since then and had a gradual turnaround. The manager’s first job was to keep us in the league, then last season it was to progress us up the league and this season it’s about keeping progressing and pushing for promotion. Overall the mentality around the club has changed and the fans are really behind us, which makes a difference.”
Support for the club has been particularly detectable since last December, when the players, led by Grainger, volunteered to help those hit by the floods that devastated Carlisle. “We felt as a squad that we needed to get out and help because there were elderly people who couldn’t get stuff out their house and young couples who were struggling,” said Grainger. “It took us no time at all to decide to go and help these people move big items of furniture out of their house and things like that. We wanted to give something back to the community because these people come and support us. It was probably a turning point in terms of how we were viewed in the town. The fans started to see us in a different light because they saw we weren’t just footballers who cared about money and going straight home after training, as we are sometimes perceived. We are blessed in what we do as a job but we are genuine people at the end of the day and I think the fans started to see us in that light after the floods.”
After their kind-hearted gestures off the field, it is the Carlisle players’ on-field work that is now gaining appreciation from the local community. In 17 games in all competitions, their only defeat this season came in a penalty shootout against Championship side Derby County in the League Cup. They sit third in League Two, just four points behind leaders Plymouth Argyle. Grainger’s own goal-scoring surge has merely been the cherry on top of a fine start to the campaign.
“I’ve hit a bit of a lucky streak lately,” he said. “I take the penalties and the free-kicks and I’ve been scoring a few from open play. I scored on Saturday [in a 3-2 win at Hartlepool] from outside the box. I’m quite prominent at getting forward, similar to when I was at Hearts, although I’ve adapted my game a little bit and my performances seem to be good. I’m enjoying it.
“There’s something in the dressing-room when you’re on a run like this where you just know you’re not going to get beat. We’re going into games full of confidence but I still don’t think we’ve fully hit our stride yet. I’ll be very disappointed if we’re not in the play-offs or the automatic promotion places comes the end of the season.”
Amid pushing for promotion, Grainger intends to attend a game at Tynecastle where he retains hero status after playing – and scoring (his first of four goals for the club, incidentally) – in Hearts’ 5-1 Scottish Cup final win over Hibs in 2012. “I was up two or three times last year and I’ll be making the journey to Tynie at some point this season,” he said. “I like to get up as much as I can and catch up with old friends. We went through a lot when I was at Hearts. I had so many highs and lows there. We weren’t getting paid, it looked like things were falling apart and then we won the cup and played at Anfield [in the Europa League]. Everything went south after that because I injured my knee and the club went into administration. I sold some cup final stuff to raise money for Hearts because the club is a big part of me. I still enjoy throwing tweets out and having a bit of banter whenever Hearts do well. The Carlisle media guys say that whenever they put anything up online about me, it gets a really good response from the Hearts fans. Ann Budge, Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson have taken Hearts in the right direction and they’re back up where they should be. Sometimes fans get frustrated with results, but the club is in a really fantastic position at the moment.