Hearts: David Gray tells why had to quit Manchester United

COMPARE the mud and guts of Preston North End's relegation battle in the Championship against the glamour of training alongside Luis Nani, Wayne Rooney and Patrice Evra at Manchester United.

Frankly, there is no comparison. Deepdale beats Old Trafford hands down, according to David Gray. The full-back, from Roslin in Midlothian, refused Sir Alex Ferguson's offer of a new contract last summer to join Preston, currently marooned at the bottom of England's second tier.

His aim of achieving regular first-team football has been achieved, though, and any wrench felt upon leaving arguably the world's biggest club has long since dissipated.

Few players would have the boldness to reject United for an unfashionable club in the division below, but viewing the move as a positive career step speaks volumes for Gray's maturity.

Six years as a reserve in Manchester meant he had seen it, done it, bought and sold the red T-shirt since leaving Hearts' youth academy in 2004. First-team exposure at Old Trafford was rarer than Sir Alex praising a referee, and the stiffs no longer appealed. At 22, it was time for change.

Ferguson proposed Preston, where his son, Darren, was manager. He has since been sacked - much to his father's annoyance - and replaced by Phil Brown. Nonetheless, Gray's 25 first-team appearances this season justify his decision to relinquish the prestige that goes with being a Manchester United player. In truth, it was a straightforward decision.

"I had the choice of another year at Man United. They offered me another one-year deal," he explained to the Evening News. "I decided it was the right time to move on.

"I was 22 years old and it was either another year at Man United playing in the reserves or take the chance to go and play first-team football at a good level. It was a good opportunity and I'm enjoying it at Preston amongst a really good bunch of lads.

"It wasn't so much having to knock United back. I'd got to an age where I'd been there for six years. The problem with another one-year deal there is I'd have been in the exact same situation for another 12 months. I could have gone on loan again (he had previously been farmed out to Crewe and Plymouth) but I felt it was the right time to get myself out of there and get playing as much as I can, get myself in the shop window. I had to start making a career for myself.

"I was 22 and only played something like 40 games. If you look around the Championship there are other players at the same age who have over 150 appearances on their CV.That was something I had to improve. I wanted to get as many games in as I could.

"I spoke to my dad, I'm very close to him and he's a big influence on my football decisions. He's always been there right from the start. I have an agent as well who helped me do the deal but I'd really made my mind up. It was the right thing to do given the age I was at.

"I spoke to both managers about it, about the options I had and we all agreed that joining Preston was the right thing to do. Darren was the manager at Preston so I think Alex was quite keen to push it through. Deep down we both knew it was the right move for me. He knew I was going to a club that wanted me. It was relatively nearby, I wasn't having to move abroad or anything like that. It was handy in that way and still a very good level of football."

Gray could not have foreseen the difficulties which leave Preston four points adrift at the bottom of the Championship. Ferguson Jnr was sacked at the end of December following a 3-1 home defeat by Tony Mowbray's Middlesbrough.

Brown took over but the team remains winless under the former Hull City manager ahead of tonight's match with Leeds United.

Despite the lull, Gray is under no illusion that he made the correct choice. He harbours aspirations of one day returning to Premier League level but for now there is more than enough competition in the Championship to sate his appetite.

"I'm just enjoying the challenge. Obviously first-team football is a lot better than reserve-team football. There is a massive jump between Premier League reserves and Championship first team, but I'm relishing it," he said.

"It's a very competitive league in that everybody beats everybody. We've found that because we haven't won in quite a few games now, but our better performances have come against teams at the top of the league rather than the bottom. On Saturday there, Scunthorpe, who are fighting for their lives, beat Swansea, who are second in the table.

"There are a lot of good players in this division and it's very physical. I think I've done alright because the league is quite similar to the way I play.

"I'm quite a physical player anyway and I don't mind that side of the game if I'm being honest.

"Obviously we are struggling a bit this season. The new manager has freshened it up a little bit but we have to win a few games this season to get ourselves out of trouble first. We can see what happens in the future.

"It's always my aim to go as high as I can. Depending on how I progress it will always be my aim to play in the Premier League. I think it's the best league in the world at the minute. Any young footballer who doesn't have desires to play in the Premier League is pretty much wasting their time.That's the highest level you can achieve and it would be the tops for me."

Having sampled that environment before and counted football luminaries like Cristiano Ronaldo amongst his team-mates, it is only natural that Gray should aspire to return. However, he wouldn't rewrite history and is content that the decision taken last summer can only benefit his future career.