KEVIN BLACKWELL has many, many memories of his time at Leeds United.
Many are happy. Others, even a decade or so on, can still elicit a bemused shake of the head. And then, there are those reminisces that just make the 57-year-old laugh, such as his first home game as Leeds United manager in August, 2004.
Derby County were the visitors to Elland Road and Blackwell, promoted from assistant manager that summer, had been a busy man due to having to effectively start again following the fire-sale that had followed relegation from the Premier League.
Signing after signing had been made, and such was the influx of new faces that Blackwell took the unusual step of taking his squad down to the stadium en masse 24 hours before that opening fixture to familiarise them with everything from where the players should park through to which was the home dressing room.
“It was chaos that summer,” recalled Blackwell when chatting to The Yorkshire Post yesterday. “Everyone had to go because of the finances so we had to bring in a new team.
“I will always remember that first game after relegation. We had so many new players that the bloke on the PA system was still reading them out as the game kicked off!
“He started with, ‘A big Elland Road welcome for Neil Sullivan’. Then moved on to Paul Butler, Michael Ricketts, (Julian) Joachim... ‘Jermaine Wright is also making his debut so let’s give him a big welcome’. It was comical. We were all giggling on the touchline, especially when he started on the subs. But it just showed how much we’d had to change.”
That United went from these inauspicious beginnings under Blackwell to reach the play-off final a little under two years later is testament to the job he did. Especially as, along the way, the club came very, very close to collapsing completely before the Yorkshire consortium who had taken charge during that final season in the top flight were bought out by Ken Bates.
“I got Leeds as close (to a Premier League return) as anyone has done since relegation,” says Blackwell, now happily back in Yorkshire as Neil Warnock’s assistant at a rejuvenated Rotherham United.
“To go from having to effectively build a completely new team in six weeks, from scratch, to the play-offs – especially with how much duress we had along the way – was a big, big thing.
“I am proud of that record. A few supporters said a few things when I got sacked (in September, 2006, a few months after losing the play-off final to Watford) but, maybe with hindsight, they might have changed their opinions. I don’t know, that is up to them.
“But people are starting to give credit for the job we did.”
Blackwell’s involvement with today’s visitors to the New York Stadium began during the summer of 2003. The lure of the Premier League had seen the former goalkeeper swap his place as Warnock’s right-hand man at Sheffield United for a similar role alongside Peter Reid at Elland Road.
Reid, though, lasted until just November before being replaced by Eddie Gray. United’s relegation then saw the reins handed to Blackwell, who after taking the club to the brink of the Premier League went on to manage Luton Town, the Blades – where he again reached the Championship play-off final – and Bury. It is only in recent years that his partnership with Warnock has been revived.
“It is great to be back together again,” said Blackwell, ahead of today’s sell-out derby clash. “Things only came to an end the first time because a huge club called Leeds United came along.
“I would not have left if it had been any club but Leeds.
“As a partnership, we work well. Between us, we have done something like 1,600 to 1,700 games as manager. And most of those in the top end of the Championship or Premier League.
“I struck out on my own for 11 years but getting back together with Neil at Palace, QPR and now Rotherham has been brilliant.
“We know each other inside out, even if we don’t always agree. It is important that we have our say before Neil makes the final decision. That is how it should be.”
Things are clearly working at the New York, judging by recent results. A haul of 13 points from the last five games has taken the Millers out of the relegation zone.
Another three points today would represent a significant boost in a relegation fight that Blackwell admits is likely to go right to the final game on May 7.
“Maybe 51 points will be enough,” he said. “That means we have to win four of our last eight games. It shows the value of our recent run, or we’d need seven out of eight wins. That would be too much.
“We have given ourselves a chance but the hard work starts now. Everyone at Rotherham United knows it is going to be tough but we all believe in these players. They have tremendous character.
“Just look at the Derby game last month (when the Millers came from 3-0 down with seven minutes on the clock to rescue a point). That game reminded me of when I was Leeds manager at Southampton.
“We were 3-0 down that day but still won 4-3. I remember getting back to 3-1 against Derby and thinking, ‘We did this at Leeds and we will do this today’. We got a point, in the end, but had the game gone on another two or three minutes I firmly believe we would have won.”