GOOD, BAD & UGLY
We catch up with former Portsmouth defender Noel Blake
STRIKERS knew they were in for a hard time if they came up against Noel Blake. The powerful Jamaican-born centre-back was strong in the air and tough in the tackle in a career that spanned just over 20 years and more than 600 games.
After starting his professional career with Aston Villa, Blake made a name for himself at the likes of Birmingham, Portsmouth, Leeds and Stoke.
He has also managed Exeter City and England U19s in a long and varied career that has seen him work with a host of big names.
Here he recalls some of the highs and lows, including how England World Cup winner Alan Ball had everyone in stitches…
I was playing for Sutton Coldfield Town as a youngster and having trials here, there and everywhere.
Aston Villa came to watch me and I went there on trial. This was in the late 70s when Villa had players like Brian Little, Andy Gray and John Deehan.
We had a practice game between the first team and reserves, and the manager Ron Saunders wanted to see me afterwards. I was given the chance to be an apprentice and I worked my way up from the youth team.
I did quite well and was offered a two-year professional contract. I was immensely proud because playing football was what I wanted to do and I had achieved it, but Ron said, ‘This is where it starts’.
This is a really difficult one because I had some good, strong managers – Ron Saunders, Howard Wilkinson, Alan Ball, Billy Bremner, Lou Macari, Frank Stapleton. If I had to choose, I’d say Ron over Howard Wilkinson because he gave me my first start.
Ron was a disciplinarian, hard-worker and showed you the value of things at a time when Villa were very successful. He was a manager, not a head coach, but he had a lot of different qualities. His manmanagement was good, he was technically very good and he was the ultimate professional.
The best player I played with was Billy Gilbert at Portsmouth. We played together at the back for Pompey for four years and we had a terrific understanding.
We got promoted to the First Division in ’87 and only conceded 28 goals – that tells you something.
Billy was a footballing centreback, like the modern day centre-backs who are encouraged to play out from the back. He was part of that Palace side that was meant to be ‘the team of the 80s’ and was a terrific player.
I’ve also got to mention Gordon Strachan at Leeds because he was the ultimate professional. The way he conducted himself on and off the pitch allowed him to play on for so long. I picked up little things from him and my last league game was in my 40th year.
With Portsmouth under Alan Ball in 1986-87. We had just missed out on promotion for the two previous seasons. In 1984-85, Manchester City beat us to third place on goal difference, while Wimbledon finished third in 198586 with three more points.
We went up without playing – Oldham lost at Shrewsbury.We all went back to our captain Kenny Swain’s house and we had a few drinks, as you can imagine.
We had been consistent for three or four years, worked hard and suffered together. We had finally got our reward and it was great for the supporters and the city because Pompey had been out of the top flight for almost 30 years.
I’ve seen so many characters over the years, but as a pure comedian I’d have to say John Stiles, Nobby’s son, at Leeds. He would come out with one-liners and have us in stitches. He could take people on for fun. Vince Hilaire and Gary Speed were like the Chuckle Brothers at Leeds, too. They had people
The best was when Alan Ball was the manager at Stoke. You knew if Alan had had a glass of wine the night before and one day at training he was trying to show Tony Kelly, who had come in from Non-League, about the timing of a run. Alan asked Tony to do it time and time again, but he couldn’t get it right. Alan, with his cap on, then tried to show him how to do it.
He set off running and then took an almighty tumble. Everyone burst out laughing and so did he. He then said, ‘That’s the type of run I’m looking for – but stay on your feet!’
It might not sound that amazing, but it was simply becoming a professional. Millions of lads out there want to be a professional footballer, but only a few make it.
That’s what I wanted to do and I achieved it. I’ll never forget my league debut for Aston Villa against Tottenham at Villa Park near the end of the 79-80 season.
We won 1-0 with a Gordon Cowans penalty. I played alongside Brendan Ormsby, who I had played with in the youth team. I played three games on the trot at the end of that season.
Looking back, it was the way we missed out on promotion at Portsmouth in 1984-85.
We won 2-0 at Huddersfield on the last day of the season. Kevin O’Callaghan scored a great goal
and we had loads of fans there, but then we came off and found out that Manchester City had beaten Charlton 5-1 and gone up instead of us. We got to the changing room and then found out about the Bradford fire. That put things into greater perspective.
TOUGHEST PLACE TO GO
Anfield. My third game was against Liverpool at Anfield – and we lost 4-1. They had a great team in the 80s and were winning trophies all the time. The only thing you used to get at Anfield was a cup of tea.
The best player I played against was Kenny Dalglish and as a pair it was Dalglish and Ian Rush.
Dalglish would drop into space and Rush would go in behind. Dalglish could use his left and right, and shield the ball really well. Their movement was excellent.
Teams often play one up front nowadays, but in the past teams had a pair.
I preferred playing up front against the big strikers who I could have a battle against. Garry Thompson and Cyrille Regis at West Brom were tough to play against as a pair. Norman Whiteside and Frank Stapleton at Manchester United were more technical.
FAVOURITE PLACE TO GO
Arsenal’s Highbury was a unique ground and I always seemed to play well there.
You had to play well there or you knew you would get a stuffing!
I used to like their North London neighbours Tottenham’s White Hart Lane as well.
I would love to have another go in management. I was in charge at Exeter in 2000-01 and I’m sure I’d be a much better manager now – I’ve got a lot more experience.
I worked for the FA for sevenand-a-half years, including five years as head coach of the Under19s.
I joined Blackpool last May and was first team coach until December.
Now I’m looking for the right opportunity to get back into coaching or management.
Best team-mate: Billy Gilbert TOP-FLIGHT DAYS: Noel Blake, back row, far left, lines up for Portsmouth at Fratton Park in 1987-88 Toughest place to go: Anfield
Funniest incident: Alan Ball Best manager: Ron Saunders Favourite place to go: Arsenal’s Highbury