Blackwell chooses the real world over dream works
Leeds'new-found modesty can't mask a club high on hope, says Paul Wilson
For a club who have spent the past three years as a byword for mismanagement and financial devastation, Leeds United glimpsed from the training ground look surprisingly healthy and well-nourished.
A shiny new academy and training centre boast facilities only the very top Premiership sides can match and which several others - Portsmouth and Everton spring to mind - can only dream about. The fact that Leeds no longer technically own the Thorp Arch complex does not seem to matter much: a 25-year leaseback suits everyone and the pitches, gymnasium and swimming pool are still for the exclusive use of the players. Upstairs Kevin Blackwell is dealing with the parents of a potential trainee in an interview suite specially designated for the purpose. Downstairs, anyone waiting to see the Leeds manager can study mounted photographs of youth-team products such as Alan Smith, Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate and Harry Kewell and reflect that there was a lot that went right here before it all went wrong.
'Those players saved the club,' Blackwell says, after he has done his own bit to secure the next generation. 'If it hadn't been for our youth development - and I take my hat off to Howard Wilkinson and his staff - we wouldn't be sitting here now. Those players effectively paid for all this. When the trouble hit, at least we had players to sell. I think we raised about £30million in all and I simply can't imagine where Leeds United would be now had we been £30m poorer than we were last season.'
Blackwell is beginning to enjoy being a manager now. Putting a team together is much easier when you can afford to spend £800,000 for a player like Robbie Blake, and he actually chooses to join you ahead of other respectable options. This time last year Blackwell 'was only doing the job because no one else would touch it,' he says.
'I came as assistant to Peter Reid. I was thrilled enough at that. If I had known I would be manager less than a year later I would have had to reach for the tablets. I always wanted to be a manager, but never ever did I imagine for a moment that my first job would be at Leeds United.'
Blackwell can smile about it now, but at the time it was painful on a daily basis for an untried manager attempting to impose order on chaos. The fact the 47-year-old managed to do just that speaks volumes for his ability.
'Managers with reputations felt it was too great a danger to come here and I couldn't really blame them,' he says. 'I only had a reputation as a coach and I was scared of losing that. Established players weren't exactly falling over themselves to join us. We had triallists left, right and centre. The Friday night before the opening game of the season against Derby I had to sign three players to give me a bench. Five hundred quid a week they were on. Nine players made their Leeds debuts that day. The Elland Road announcer had to introduce everyone, starting with Neil Sullivan. It was the longest roll call I'd ever heard.'
Softly spoken and articulate, Blackwell can still get worked up about what happened to his predecessor. 'It angers me that I only worked for eight weeks with Reidy. His ideas were right, but it was cheaper to get rid of him than some of the players he had to deal with. People shouldn't question his ability based on what happened here.'
Blackwell then assisted Eddie Gray in his seven-month stint as caretaker, before making the decision to put himself forward for manager once Premiership relegation had been confirmed.
'I didn't feel I had a choice,' he explains. 'I didn't want people saying I could only coach. I knew I was taking a big gamble. We had a really young side, six players under the age of 21 playing every week, all of them in their debut season. There were 28 debuts for the whole of the club - I think that's a professional record. Obviously I was aware there were big financial problems, but I didn't know we would struggle to meet the wage bill over Christmas, or that the Inland Revenue had set 24 January as the date to put a liquidation order on the club.'
There were many more unpleasant surprises along the way, such as the unexpected tax bill that instantly wiped out the £1.8m spending money he had been promised from the sale of James Milner. But Blackwell never lacked belief in his own ability. He has a business background as well as his football experience, gained from assisting Neil Warnock at five different clubs. Unconvinced his son would make it as a professional goalkeeper, Blackwell's father insisted he learn a trade. He went into building, so successfully that when he finally sold up to concentrate on the coaching career he had promised himself, the business he had built from nothing employed 60 people.
Building wasn't really what I wanted to do,' he says casually. 'It stood me in good stead, though, even though it was tiring to have to keep dashing off north to play for Scarborough.' Because of his long apprenticeship to Warnock and a football career almost exclusively spent in Yorkshire it is easy to forget that Blackwell is from Luton, which is where his building firm was based. Keeping a football career going at the other end of the country was an early indication that when Blackwell puts his mind to something he is capable of making it happen.
'I always knew I wanted to go into football management,' he says. 'I smashed my leg quite badly at Scarborough and I knew I would never get to the top as a player, but from an early age I had my sights set on a coaching career. That was why I knew I couldn't turn down Leeds.
'I loved Sheffield United and enjoyed working with Neil, but after five clubs it was time to branch out. I didn't want to be so inextricably linked with Neil that people would think I couldn't work with anyone else.'
Blackwell had no idea how soon he would be struggling on his own, but the arrival of Ken Bates in time to banish fears of administration or liquidation brought Leeds back to something approaching normality. 'His football acumen has come to the fore already,' Blackwell says of Bates. 'He has a wealth of knowledge and contacts and he's passionate about turning Leeds around. But he's a very demanding man.'
So demanding that Blackwell must have feared the worst when football's most hands-on chairman turned up to cast his eye over his stewardship. 'I wasn't worried because I knew what I had done for the club,' Blackwell insists. 'I knew that on 12 August last year we only had 12 players signed. Every one of them was a free. The cost of the whole team I put together did not equal one player's wages from the year before. I was working to a budget that kept being taken away from me. No one knew what would happen next, except it would probably be bad. It was about keeping the club alive, keeping it afloat long enough for someone to come along and help us move on.'
In his modest way, Blackwell gives himself credit for that achievement and who is to say he does not deserve it? 'If we had been down in the bottom half of the table in January I don't think Ken would have touched us,' Blackwell says. 'The club would not have survived a second relegation.'
Promotion would be so much nicer. Does Blackwell share the general optimism that Leeds are once more marching on together?
'I have to temper everybody's expectations, don't I?' he asks. 'I expect us to improve on our position last year and that's as much as I want to say. If I come out and say Leeds will get promoted, I've just done the team talk for every manager in this division. '
This Championship could be the toughest race for some time. We'll settle for steady progress. I don't want any more dreams here just yet. We've lived the dream, and seen what happened when we woke up. But you're allowed to have hope and self-belief, it wouldn't be much of a game otherwise. If the fans are looking forward to the new season, that's fine by me.'