GOOD, BAD & UGLY
Kevin Blackwell recalls his days with Big Ron, George Best...and Warnock!
FROM the moment he was bundled into Big Ron’s flash Jag, Kevin Blackwell knew that football was all he ever wanted to do. And while he never quite made the grade at Cambridge United, the big goalie made up for it with a distinguished career in Non-League that eventually culminated in promotion from the Conference with Scarborough in 1987.
It was there that he began a 20year association with Neil Warnock, learning his trade at the arm of one of the Football League’s most successful – and colourful – characters.
And the lessons paid off when Blackwell finally struck out alone, taking both Leeds and Sheffield United to Championship play-off finals.
Now back with Warnock as a coach at Premier League Crystal Palace, the 55-year-old is enjoying a break from the frontline – and even found time to cast an eye back over a career that began way back in 1973.
Cambridge United, when I was 15. The manager was ‘Big’ Ron Atkinson and he used to pick me up in his big white Jaguar. I’ll never forget it.
I was a kid from a council house in Luton and I remember him turning up to take me to a tournament with the youth team.The whole estate was talking about it!
I was there for a year and then I moved on to Barnet with Barry Fry – another larger than life character. What a first impression of football managers!
Believe it or not, Jimmy Greaves. Jimmy was big pals with the chairman of Barnet, a lad called Dave Underwood, and he joined us for a season in 1977. Strangely enough, it was one of the only times my dad ever came to watch me play!
The older generation all talk about Jimmy Greaves in a reverential way but I played with him and let me tell you – he was exceptional.
He was in his late thirties and not the fittest but even then he could do things and see things that our players couldn’t dream of. I still remember a game at Oxford when he scored from the halfway line.
I was only 17 at the time and it was an incredible lesson in what makes a worldclass player.
Scarborough in 1987 – we were the first club ever to win automatic promotion to the Football League because before that you had to be elected.
I arrived in the November from Barnet, got player of the year and lost only one game all season. And who did we pip to the title? Barnet.
It has to be a lad called Steve Adams. He used to play for Sheffield Wednesday but I was with him at Scarborough under Neil Warnock.
He could have been a professional comedian – he was that good. I would sign him now just to have him in the dressing room making people laugh.
What a character. I remember when we played Portsmouth in the quarter-final of the League Cup. We were all down for dinner and he walks in dressed as a sailor.
The next round, against Southampton, he came down as a farmer with a pig stuffed under his arm. Both times he just walked in and sat down as if it was the most normal thing in the world. We all looked forward to what he would do next.Which was…
We were at home to Crewe and Neil was standing in the middle of the dressing room giving his prematch team talk.
We were all stripping off and Stevie – without batting an eyelid – took off his shirt and trousers to reveal he was wearing knickers, suspenders, stockings and a bra.
Obviously we were all crying but Neil had his back to Stevie and couldn’t see. He was still standing there trying to give a team-talk, getting irate because we weren’t listening. He was absolutely losing his rag, yelling ‘What the f*** is going on’. And the angrier he got, the funnier it got.
He realised eventually but the team-talk was irrelevant.We were in such good spirits we went out and beat them 3-0.
I was going to say Rob Hulse, who came in at Leeds and scored a lot of important goals for us.
But the one that had the biggest impact was probably Paul Butler, a terrific leader and skipper at a time when Leeds were desperate for one. We’d lost almost every single player from the previous season in the Premier League so we had no experience or knowhow. But for all those problems, you still needed players who could cope with the expectations at a big club like Leeds.
Paul had been such an influential player for six or seven years at Wolves and he knew exactly what was required. Nothing fazed him and he was an absolute pillar of strength.
Getting Leeds to within 90 minutes of the Premier League in 2006. I’d been head-hunted by Peter Reid to go there in 2004 and I had no idea about the state of the club. I remember we played Manchester United about 12 games into the season and on the eve of the match the news broke that we were £130m in debt. It was unbelievable.
Everyone knows what happened next. Leeds got relegated and everything – from the players on the park to those famous fish in the chairman’s office – was sold.
I was appointed manager that summer and my first job was to get rid of people like Mark Viduka, James Milner and Dominic Matteo for knockdown prices.
In the end, I was left with Gary Kelly, Lucas Radebe and Michael Duberry. I had to buy a whole new squad.
Then Dubes was sold to Stoke after about eight weeks. Lucas ruptured his achilles and never played again. On the first day of the season it took the announcer about ten minutes to welcome the new players to the club because Gary was the only one left!
We were red-hot favourites to go down and that year was all about stabilising the club. But the year after we finished third and, while we lost in the play-offs to Watford, I’ll always take pride in overcoming problems that – to this day – still haven’t been properly solved.
TOUGHEST PLACE TO GO
You get nothing at Millwall – even a cup of tea in the old days! It’s one of those places that’s intimidating from the moment you get there to the moment you leave.
It’s frustrating to admit it but Neil Warnock. Me and Neil go back years – he signed me for Scarborough and it was Neil who first believed in me as a coach.
We won so many promotions together and everything I’ve done in coaching and management is in some way down to the start he gave me.
Even so, when you’re that close to someone, you always want to get one over on them – but I just couldn’t.
At a rough guess I must have come up against him seven or eight times and I think I got two draws. I certainly never beat him.
I should have known every trick in his book but he just had the edge on me.
I guess he knew me better than I knew him.
FAVOURITE PLACE TO GO
Wembley. Nothing beats it.To lead out your club in front of a full house – as I did with Sheffield United in 2009 – is a magical experience.
I was also lucky enough to play at the old Wembley in the FA Trophy.
The tunnel was on a slope and you couldn’t see the fans until you’d almost reached the top.
Then it all opened out and the crescendo of noise was unbelievable. Old or new, it’s unforgettable.
Right now, the ambition is to help Neil keep Palace up. Beyond that, it’s to con- tinue a career in this fantastic game.
I’ve been very lucky – I do accept that. But I’ve also been very successful as a manager in taking two big clubs to major finals.
I want to work at the highest level I can for as long as I can and use this time away from management to step back and reassess.
When I was assistant to Neil at Sheffield United, I was able to learn so much by just watching and taking things in. But managing a club is all consuming and you really don’t have time to properly analyse what you’re doing.
I’m enjoying being able to do that and I’m enjoying coaching. But when the time is right, I would like to step back in and be the main man.
Ron Atkinson BOSSING IT: Kevin Blackwell in his Sheffield United managerial days Best team-mate: Jimmy Greaves
Best signing: Paul Butler First promotion: Scarborough ‘87