Blackwell looks for Premiership ascent after surviving Leeds' financial abyss

The Yorkshire club have a fresh optimism and confidence after a season in hell. Andy Hunter talks to their manager
Click to follow
The Independent Football

"The picture had to go because all of the players on the top two rows and half of the bottom row are not here any more," explains the Leeds manager. "To be honest, we didn't have enough players to fill the picture at the time so I brought a few kids over from the Academy to make it look a bit better."

Along with the club's defiant support, the 47-year-old awaits its replacement with optimism. On it will be £800,000 Robbie Blake, who swapped the Premiership with Birmingham for the expected Elland Road ascent, the England Under-21 left-back Dan Harding, a target for several leading clubs, Steve Stone, United States international Eddie Lewis plus the core of a side that promised more than the eventual 14th place finish of last season. A club that could have been sleeping with the goldfishes in January has settled with its creditors, and it illustrates the strides made by Blackwell in 12 months that instead of searching for a squad he now awaits the photograph of a promising one.

"This time last year we didn't even have a bench for the first game against Derby," he recalls; "So on the Friday at 12.30pm I signed Brian Deane, Craig Hignett and Steve Guppy. At times last season I had four players on £500 a week. When was the last time Leeds had £500-a-week players? Probably the early 1980s.

"I had 28 debuts last season, which I think is a professional record, 64 trialists, including a Dutch winger who lasted 10 minutes at Macclesfield because I realised he must have been a waiter, and to go through all that was just incredible. I kept thinking, 'This cannot be right.' We've got state-of-the-art facilities at Leeds and yet we cannot get any players in."

With Blackwell and Ken Bates, who bought 50 per cent of the club for £4.9m three days before a winding-up order was due to be served and now has complete control, blood-letting has given way to an anticipated rebirth. "Our starting point now is so different," the manager says. "The whole place is so different to 12 months ago, thankfully. This summer I have been able to sign players of vastly superior quality.

"It was a day-to-day existence last season. The classic was when James Milner was going to be on the front of the Leeds, Leeds, Leeds magazine as the new face of the club in place of Alan Smith. On the Monday the photographers were taking pictures of James at the training ground; on the Friday he went to Newcastle for £3.8m. He was never in the equation to go, but a black hole arose and we needed to get cash in quickly. Scott Carson was sold to pay December's wages.

"We were third favourites to go down and I don't think we could have survived another relegation. We had to halt the slide last year. We did that quite early - we even had a sniff of the play-offs - and I was able to start this season's building process by the end of March. Now we have a squad that I believe can challenge for a top-six place."

The apprenticeship Blackwell served as assistant to Neil Warnock at Sheffield United and Peter Reid, who initially brought him to Leeds in 2003, provided the grounding to handle such a fraught managerial debut. It is a chance the former Scarborough goalkeeper might never had received but for the predicament of his employers, and the heightened expectation that surrounds him this season is a reflection of his solid start.

He explains: "I welcome it. This time last year the burden on me was to save this football club. I felt the strain at times and it was a pressure I don't want to experience again. If the expectations now are to get promoted then it is pressure that bares no resemblance to trying to save a club of this stature.

"I felt guilty last season. I had brought people in from good clubs with guaranteed wages to a situation where in January we received an e-mail saying wages would not be paid to certain people. That's pressure. I was dealing with people's lives and their families and I thought I was bringing them into a stable situation when it was anything but.

"I have never been afraid to lead from the front, when I was 17 I set up my own building firm and by the age of 22 I had 60 people working for me, but it wasn't an ego trip to take on Leeds United. I knew that if I failed here my time as a manager would be dead and buried. People now know that I can work under pressure.

"If my role has just been to save this football club and someone feels it needs someone else to move the club forward then I'll have done the job that was maybe more important than anything else. Never mind getting to the semi-finals of the Champions' League and winning the League, I would say last season was the most important at Leeds United for 30 or 40 years. Saving this club was the biggest challenge of all."

The challenge became surmountable on 21 January, the day Leeds were saved from the financial abyss. "One week the Sainsbury takeover was on, the next it was off, and it got to a situation where it was shit or bust on the Monday," Blackwell explains. "Then late on the Friday the chairman came in and from that point onwards there has been a lot more confidence about the place."

Bates's arrival may have moved uncertainty out of the accounts department but it initially went straight into the manager's chair, although Blackwell, who was assured the morning after the 73-year-old's takeover that he would get the chance to take the club forward, insists the credit for Leeds' survival belongs to the chairman.

"The great thing as a manager working for Ken Bates, although this can be to my detriment, is that if I need an answer I'll get it. That's how to run a business," he says. "He's very proactive and I've really enjoyed working for him, and I'm not just saying that because he's my chairman and I want to continue working for him. He can be bombastic and belligerent but I've learnt so much from how he operates and the way he thinks. He is the reason why we have turned around so quickly."

Blackwell's tips for promotion are the three clubs who have dropped from the Premiership without, to use the new football parlance, "doing a Leeds". Yet he insists: "I am optimistic about the future. In the September of 2003 I wrote a 17-page report for Peter Reid in which I predicted we would get relegated from the Premier League. In May 2004 we did. There was so much wrong here and as an outsider it was easy to see.

"If I was to write a report now I would say the long-term future of the club is so much better than I could have dreamt 12 months ago. Don't get me wrong, we are still building from nothing and while I have got a good squad of players they have never played together before. There will be at least six debuts against Millwall on Sunday, but the signs are that we now have a very good unit."

The plus side: Leeds' summer signings

* ROB HULSE

(Striker, age 25)

From West Bromwich for £1.1m

* ROBBIE BLAKE

(Striker, 29)

Birmingham City, £800,000

* DAN HARDING

(Defender, 21)

Brighton, £450,000

* EDDIE LEWIS

(Winger, 31) Preston, free transfer

* STEVE STONE

(Midfielder, 33)

Portsmouth, free

* IAN BENNETT

(Goalkeeper, 33)

Birmingham City, free

* RUI MANUEL MARQUES (Defender, 27)

Unattached, free

Total spent: £2.35m

Comments