Promotion is the immediate priority for Danny Grainger and Carlisle United. Securing a play-off place and subsequent leverage into League One after a three-year absence would be the perfect gift for supporters at Brunton Park. Grainger, though, is working extra hours to leave a lasting legacy across the entire Cumbria region.
England’s rural north west isn’t known as a hotbed for burgeoning football talent, but the former Hearts defender is aiming to change all that with his Cumbria Football Academy. He has already supplied Queen of the South and Carlisle with players and is now targeting other clubs further afield.
He gathers promising teens from around the Cumbria region together once a week for extra training sessions. They also take part in friendlies against youth teams from nearby professional clubs and, when the time is right, some get the opportunity to move on and join those clubs.
It is a useful solution to a geographical problem devised by Grainger and his close friend Gary Dicker of Kilmarnock. Two years ago, they began coaching local Cumbrian kids and recognised that talent in the area was being overlooked because it was outwith the catchment area of most professional clubs.
The pair, then Carlisle team-mates, decided to open their own academy for youngsters aged 14-16. So successful has it been that it is being expanded into neighbouring Lancashire. Grainger had to employ another coach when Dicker joined Kilmarnock in January but the transition has been seamless and the boys under his tutelage continue to flourish.
“Myself and Gary started doing some coaching locally a couple of years ago. We realised there were a few good players around who were getting missed by local teams,” Grainger explained to the Evening News. “We decided to open a little academy to bridge the gap between grass roots and the professional game. We had an open trial match and selected players from the local area who we could bring in for weekly sessions.
“They still played for their local teams and trained with us once a week. On school holidays, we’d go and play against professional youth teams like Carlisle United and Queen of the South. Gary left just after Christmas and I brought in Michael Yarker, who is a really good coach from down here and is trying to get his UEFA coaching badges finished.
“From the first session I did with Dicker, we had a goalkeeper who I recommended to Queen of the South and they signed him straight away. It’s a big catchment area and there are only so many players the scouts around here can get. Like any area, there are always one or two who slip through the net. Since we’ve opened this academy, we’ve had three players signed by Queen of the South and two by Carlisle United. We’re delighted how it’s running at the moment.”
Expansion is inevitable when you are successful and Grainger has been pro-active in that sense. He sees the chance to gain a foothold slightly further south and is already putting building blocks in place.
“We’ve now got under-13, under-14, under-15 and under-16 teams. We play against Carlisle, Queens, Annan, Workington Reds, and we’re in the process of opening another academy down in Kendal,” he continued. “That will be another branch and I can then get in touch with teams in that catchment area like Morecambe, Accrington and others.”
At 30, he has perhaps caught the coaching bug slightly earlier than most footballers. The veteran years of his career are not yet upon him but there is no doubt he feels strongly about passing on what he has learned. Grainger represented Gretna, Dundee United, St Johnstone, Hearts, St Mirren and Dunfermline and gained a fair insight into football coaching and management in the process.
“I’m finishing off my UEFA A Licence at the moment and I feel passionately about coaching. I really enjoy it,” he said. “I feel I can take a little bit from a lot of people I’ve worked with in my career. I still speak to lads I played with who are doing a bit of coaching, like Paul Sheerin, Jon Daly and Andy Webster. I’m really close with Gavin Skelton, who was manager at Queen of the South [now a player at Annan Athletic].
“I’m quite lucky I’ve got a group of lads there who I can speak to about the coaching side of things. Carlisle are also good with me. They let me get involved in their centre of excellence when I can as well.
“I’m passionate about coaching and I’ve got a real buzz for it. I’ve worked under managers like Craig Levein, Derek McInnes, Jim Jefferies and Paulo Sergio. I’ve been lucky and I’ve learned a lot. I know management isn’t easy but it’s something I would look at doing.
“I’ve set the academy up and hopefully, in the next couple of years, it’ll be able to run itself with the people who will be on board. I can maybe concentrate on coaching on a different side. [Professional] coaching jobs don’t just fall on your doorstep, though. I’ll be trying to get into coaching when I finish playing but, if it doesn’t happen, hopefully I can stick with my academy and push that forward.”
For now, as Carlisle captain, he is trying to kick their promotion bid into overdrive. Saturday’s 3-3 draw at Crawley Town left United tenth in England’s League Two but only one point off the play-off zone. They proudly sat top of the table as recently as December before events began conspiring against them.
“It’s been a disappointing second half of the season, disrupted by players being injured. We don’t use that as an excuse,” admitted Grainger. “We should’ve done better so we’ll push forward and try to get a play-off place.
“We’ve had three draws on the bounce in our last three games and we dominated all three of them. We should’ve taken all three points. So, instead of sitting comfortably in the play-off places, we face an uphill battle to get back in there. We now have two big games coming up against Newport and Exeter to try and get that play-off spot.”
Grainger is satisfied that his club are progressing year-on-year, regardless of whether they achieve their stated aim this term or not.
“When the manager, Keith Curle, came in, we were nine points adrift at the bottom of the English Football League. We’ve progressed every year and, if we see an improvement, we could finish with a really good season. Play-offs are a lottery, it’s who turns up on the day.”
Whether turning up for a crunch play-off tie or a coaching session with teenagers, rest assured Grainger will give it his all.