Blackwell's manageable dream

Debt halved, wage bill slashed, 21 departures, 11 'free' arrivals - welcome to Leeds 2004
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Kevin Blackwell is surely joking when he says the reason why he agreed to last week's friendly match between Leeds United and Valencia was because he wanted his team to know where the home dressing-room was. "Three or four of them turned the wrong way," he adds. The Leeds manager is serious.

Kevin Blackwell is surely joking when he says the reason why he agreed to last week's friendly match between Leeds United and Valencia was because he wanted his team to know where the home dressing-room was. "Three or four of them turned the wrong way," he adds. The Leeds manager is serious. Indeed, just two of his players - Gary Kelly and Michael Duberry - had even played together before. "I didn't want it to be an issue on that first home [League] game against Derby," he says. "Otherwise it would have been an away match for us as well."

The Valencia game was pivotal. Twenty thousand fans turned up. It was an act of faith. "No matters what happens, we might be skint but we're still a big club," Blackwell says. It was also an act of hope. A draw was achieved with the emergence of 16-year-old Simon Walton, who scored a penalty and was dismissed.

Suddenly, it appears, after the relegation, the financial disaster - "Someone took their eye off the ball. It's seems inconceivable" - the exodus, the loss of Alan Smith, Leeds are finding another cult hero. "The kid has a great opportunity to move on and become a legend here," Blackwell says of Walton. That role had been allotted to James Milner. "But that was defunct within two weeks."

Another transfer. "Twenty-one so far have gone," Blackwell says, recalling how, on the brief 10-day break he had this summer in Barbados, he took three mobile phones. It has been that hectic since he signed his two-year contract. Even that appointment was only announced after another messy hiatus in which it was not clear who owned the club and whether they wanted him. "It was a PR disaster and, by the way, are we good at them," Blackwell says. "And it made us look stupid. I was the victim of the whole club and the way it was going." His wife and two daughters have now been packed off to Spain on another holiday. "I've no time to see them," he says.

Eleven players have come in - all free transfers. Some £60m has been raised, debt halved from £103m and the wage bill cut from £42m to £18m, which is still more than twice the average in the Championship. "And in that I'm paying for six or seven [players] from the old regime," Blackwell adds. The bill is six times that of his last club, Sheffield United.

The day after the Valencia game Blackwell called in Walton - "a lovely lad, with a great future" - and told him that from now on he would be cleaning his boots and those of his assistant, Sam Ellis. "Just to keep him on his toes," Blackwell adds. "If I see a speck of dirt, he'll be called in again. Every day I look at those boots." An apprenticeship has to be served. Blackwell, a self-confessed journeyman footballer, knows that. He served his. It started, at 14, with Ron Atkinson at Cambridge United. He worked with David Pleat, Len Ashurst and Neil Warnock before he got a phone call eight months ago from Peter Reid, who he says was subsequently treated "appallingly", inviting him to be Leeds' coach. Blackwell maintains it was a decision that took two seconds. And one he would make again.

"I realised early that I wasn't going to reach the top as a player," Blackwell says of his curtailed career. A badly broken leg, and two years out, confirmed that. But he was a good talker, a good organiser. Youth teams at Plymouth Argyle and Huddersfield Town progressed, as did the reserves and then the first teams. "I didn't want to rush into management," the 44-year-old says. Jobs were turned down, managers' jobs, because he wanted to wait. Few would think of Leeds - with five managers in three years and their well-chronicled problems - as the place to start. He firmly disagrees. "I'm under no illusion that I wouldn't be here if Leeds were on the crest of a wave," he says. "I came because it's Leeds United Football Club. I look around here. I grew up watching the great Leeds side. I've had frustrating times. But then I think, 'No, I'm Leeds'."

That emotion coursed through his veins last May when he took charge of Leeds' last Premiership match - away to Chelsea. It was Claudio Ranieri's final match and the Italian, of course, was in the opposition dug-out last week at Elland Road, leading Valencia. Another reference point from that game. Blackwell's feelings at Stamford Bridge - in common with his reaction to the attention heaped on Walton - are revealing. There's steel. "At the end I just looked round at the fans and thought, 'What the hell are we doing in Division One?' It hurt that day," he says. It hurt all season. He had sat in the dug-out, defeat after defeat, "and the hairs on the back of my neck were standing" because of the passion from the Leeds fans.

They lost 1-0. But, on goal difference, it was enough to raise them off the bottom of the table. It also earned £500,000. "We were leaving the Premiership but we didn't want to be last," Blackwell says. Also Leeds, with a scratch side, avoided the humiliation heaped on them on their previous visit to London, when they lost 5-0 to Arsenal. "I wasn't going to let that happen," says Blackwell.

His pride is fierce. As is his industry - 17-hour days - and his hunger. That was missing at the club. "On and off the field," Blackwell says. "I'd come from a stable football club and we had a desire and a work ethic among the players that I didn't think was here. There was from some guys, but collectively it wasn't there."

There are excuses. "Every Friday of every second week Leeds could have gone bust. People would come in and say, 'Has 2pm gone yet?' because that was the time they would make the decision in London. It was terrible. And we were told some days, 'Well, this could be the day'." It took its toll. "It was difficult mentally, and then you go out and play against teams who are focused."

Focus and hunger. Now he has quietly assembled players with a point to prove - players such as Michael Ricketts, Julian Joachim, Clark Carlisle and, on Friday, Neil Sullivan. In some ways it is a relief the big names have gone. "How would they handle a December night in Gillingham, Rotherham, Crewe - where they are going to be harassed?" Blackwell says. It will be a fight. And he's up for it. He senses the fans are too. Leeds, he is adamant, have a future, and he wants to build it. "But the biggest problem in football is the lack of stability."

His faith is in youth, in players like Walton. He can and will protect them and Leeds. "We're a lesson for everyone else in football. If you go chasing the dream, and you don't attain it, there's an awful nightmare to follow," Blackwell says. But nightmares are followed by the dawn.