GOOD, BAD & UGLY

Kevin Black­well re­calls his days with Big Ron, George Best...and Warnock!

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE: - By Chris Dunlavy

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.

FIRST CLUB

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!

BEST TEAM-MATE

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.

FIRST PRO­MO­TION

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.

FUN­NI­EST PLAYER

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…

FUN­NI­EST IN­NCI­DENT

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.

BEST SIGN­ING

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.

BIG­GEST ACHIEVE­MENT

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.

TOUGH­EST OP­PO­NENT

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.

AM­BI­TION

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.

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Images

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

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