Blackwell determined to revive spent force

Tim Rich talks to the new Leeds manager about how his club's misfortunes have helped him prepare for life outside the Premiership
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The Independent Football

That the red-and-white barrier at Leeds United's training ground rises at all is quietly amazing to Kevin Blackwell. There were many times last season when the Leeds manager drove through the Yorkshire countryside to the east of Wetherby and expected to see the gates padlocked.

Thorp Arch has not entirely escaped the financial scouring that has ripped away the club's outer layers. The Persimmon Homes development on one side attests to that; the gold-stoned Georgian manor where Blackwell's predecessor, David O'Leary, once held court has gone, along with virtually all of his players in the wake of Leeds' financial crisis and relegation from the Premiership last season.

And yet, if you enter the futuristic training complex itself and stand by the vast, empty swimming pool or poke your head into the pristine gymnasium, the impression the surroundings create seems to back Blackwell's statement that "Leeds are too big a club to be in the First Division".

Sunderland could have said much the same. They, too, have a training centre full of chrome and technology and cannot afford a receptionist to staff the front desk. Returning to Thorp Arch, you feel like Charles Ryder coming back to the shell of Brideshead after the war; everywhere there are reminders of the long party, now long gone.

"It looks like a top European club which has been run like a non-league outfit," is how Blackwell describes it in a voice that is Cockney chirpy rather than Yorkshire flat. "I don't think any man enjoys going to work knowing that when he comes home that night there might not be any wages or he'll be out of work," said the man charged with the salvage operation. "If anybody said that doesn't affect them, then it's rubbish. I look at Sheffield Wednesday with their magnificent support, getting 25,000 in the Second Division, and I'm under no illusions it's going to be a tough, tough job."

None of Leeds' pre-season fixtures was so poignant as Sunday's encounter with Valencia. Close your eyes and it could be 2 May 2001, the semi-final of the European Cup - O'Leary's 43rd birthday, Lee Bowyer hitting the crossbar, Gaizka Mendieta doing the same for Valencia.

The heroes of the 2-2 draw on 25 July 2004 were Matthew Spring and a 16-year-old named Simon Walton who scored and then managed to get himself sent off.

For Blackwell, who became Leeds' fourth manager in less than two years when Eddie Gray was sacked in May, the fixture had a more immediate use than stoking up nostalgia. "If I hadn't had the game against Valencia, at least 14 players would not have experienced Elland Road before our first game of the season against Derby," he said. "It was important to have a game under atmospheric conditions and so they know when they come to Elland Road where they park their cars."

Some 21 players, ranging from the men responsible for the great European nights under O'Leary (Mark Viduka and Alan Smith), to the bit-part players (Nicky Barmby and Stephen McPhail), to those youngsters who found themselves out of contract at the worst possible time, have left. Nine, mostly battle-hardened, replacements, including Brian Deane, Michael Ricketts, Julian Joachim and Paul Butler, have arrived.

None of the departures would have hurt more than that of James Milner and not just because in the July edition of the Leeds official magazine he is on the front cover as "The Face of the Future". Blackwell had imagined he would receive part of the £5m fee Newcastle paid, but so far there has only been a trickle of funds.

But he has backed the new board in public. The only time Blackwell objected to a transfer was when vetoing Michael Duberry's move to Wolverhampton that would have seen Leeds paying £16,000 of the defender's £24,000 weekly wage. In Blackwell's eyes it made neither footballing nor financial sense.

In November, Blackwell must have imagined that he, too, would have been among the departed. At Sheffield United, he had turned himself from a lower-league goalkeeper into the First Division's brightest young coach. In 2003, Sheffield United reached two cup semi-finals and the First Division play-off final. Blackwell was said to be so dedicated, the story went round the city that he would turn up unannounced at a player's house to check the contents of his fridge.

The week after United's defeat by Wolves in the play-off final at Cardiff, Peter Reid called him with the offer to become his assistant at Elland Road. Six months later, after his sacking, Reid would apologise to Blackwell for involving him in an almighty mess. "I don't regret coming because I have a little badge with LUFC on it and it's absolutely charismatic," he said. "People ask: 'If you'd known, would you have come?' The answer is, I'd do it all over again. It's a great club."

It has unquestionably been an uncomfortable club. On succeeding Terry Venables, Reid had fired Gray as assistant manager, although he remained as a special adviser to the chairman, John McKenzie.

This may explain why, a few weeks into last season, McKenzie approached Blackwell to ask whether he thought Reid was the right man for the job. Blackwell thought it an utterly bizarre question, but he managed to survive all three men.

A few years ago, as O'Leary's teams swept aside Lazio and Deportivo La Coruña, Leeds was reinventing itself as the capital of the north. Yet despite the outward sophistication of the bars and brasseries, it retains an edgy aggression. Over the road from Room and Chino Latino, where you can sip £8 cocktails, stands The Majestyk nightclub, where an incident occurred which resulted in two Leeds players being tried for assault, and acquitted, but where it all began to unravel.

"Usually, you have three or four signings to make in a summer, five if you're unlucky," Blackwell said. "I need three times that. The question I have had to ask myself before every transfer is: 'Could this player handle a high-profile club like Leeds, could they handle playing at Elland Road in front of 30,000 to 35,000 expectant fans? Could they handle the press and media intrusion? Do they have the discipline that is going to be needed with Leeds United?' That's why it's been harder."

One of his signings, Butler, said that Elland Road felt like Molineux did last summer, when Dave Jones brought in 14 new players. It took two months for that side to gel; Wolves lost five of their first six games, a statistic from which they never recovered.

Leeds, a club that since the war has never bounced straight back from relegation, cannot afford a similar start. Blackwell has introduced team bonding in earnest with a tour of Sweden, go-karting sessions and games of bowls, reminiscent of the tactics Don Revie once employed. Blackwell joked that even the club cat is new.

But the nature of the signings has been in stark contrast to the men who appeared last year. Didier Domi, Salomon Olembe, Lamine Sakho and, most disastrously of all, Roque Junior. All signed on loan from exotic clubs, all totally inadequate for what Leeds required.

"In management it's nice to think the players you sign have been ones you've looked at for a long time and ones you know everything about," Blackwell reflected. "However, on 4 August last year Peter Reid was promised money which did not materialise, giving Peter only five days to get seven players in. Therefore we did something in haste and repented at leisure."

Perhaps it is better this way. Perhaps Leeds needed to purge themselves of all the poisons by going down and rebuilding from nothing. "Perhaps the club had got a little bit fat," Blackwell said. "Money seemed to be the answer everywhere. It seemed that wherever there was a crack we stuffed it full of money, but when the money ran out the crack was still there. This might allow us to go forward on a more stable footing and learn some lessons. Leeds United will never again go down that frivolous route which was supposed to let us live the dream, because the nightmare is a lot longer than any dream.

"That day in March when the City pulled the plug on the club and Trevor Birch was given two days to find a buyer was the worst possible scenario. Had he not done so, there would be more problems than having no money to spend. Could we have been a Napoli or a Fiorentina? Yes, we could have been. But if you gave me £100m, I'm sure I could spend it, because we did before."