GOOD, BAD & UGLY

We catch up with for­mer Portsmouth de­fender Noel Blake

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE - By John Lyons

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…

FIRST CLUB

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’.

BEST MANAGER

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.

BEST TEAM-MATE

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.

FIRST PRO­MO­TION

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.

FUN­NI­EST PLAYER

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

go­ing 24/7.

FUN­NI­EST INCI

DENT

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!’

BIG­GEST ACHIEVE­MENT

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.

LOW­EST MO­MENT

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.

TOUGH­EST OP­PO­NENT

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.

AM­BI­TION

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.

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Images

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

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