Weekend Interview '“ Huddersfield Town visit brings back fond memories for Kevin Blackwell

KEVIN BLACKWELL relished his time at Huddersfield Town, the club where the then goalkeeper took his first steps in coaching under Neil Warnock.

Cardiff City assistant manager Kevin Blackwell: Welcomes first coaching club Huddersfield Town.
Cardiff City assistant manager Kevin Blackwell: Welcomes first coaching club Huddersfield Town.

But the 60-year-old does admit one stressful afternoon in particular springs to mind ahead of today’s reunion with the West Riding club.

“There wasn’t a lot of money around at Huddersfield,” recalls Blackwell to The Yorkshire Post about a two-year spell that culminated in the securing of promotion back to the second tier in 1995.

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“Everyone did a few jobs and it was here I moved into coaching, taking the youth team after George Mulhall had left. It was a job I loved but Neil also wanted me to be back-up ’keeper to Simon Francis.

“He’d had to let the big lad (Tim Clarke) go as the club needed the money. You know how persuasive the gaffer can be so I agreed to do both roles, which made Saturdays fun. I would take the youth team in the morning and then dash back to be on the bench for the first team.

“Usually, this was fine. But there was this one afternoon when we were up at Middlesbrough in the morning and then the traffic back to Huddersfield was horrendous.

“I didn’t get to the old Leeds Road until two minutes after kick-off. Francis was in goal and, thankfully, nothing happened to him so it was fine. But the stress was unbelievable. I definitely would not recommend any coaches starting out today trying to combine two jobs like that.”

Blackwell, Warnock’s assistant at Cardiff City for the past two years, will today be in the home dugout against his old club in south Wales.

TOP JOB: Neil Warnock and Kevin Blackwell. during their time at Rotherham United. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

The stress levels are unlikely to be quite as high as that mad dash back from Teesside in the mid-Nineties but there can be little doubt as to just how high the stakes are for both clubs this afternoon.

Huddersfield, eight points behind the fourth-bottom Bluebirds, simply have to win. The hosts, meanwhile, are about to embark on a four-week run that could define their season with meetings against fellow strugglers Newcastle United and Southampton also scheduled.

Blackwell will utilise the skills and experience from a coaching career that has had an uncanny knack of bringing him back to a county he first called ‘home’ in 1986 when recruited by Warnock at non-League Scarborough.

He has managed Leeds United and Sheffield United, leading both clubs to the Championship play-off final. The former goalkeeper also spent four years as Warnock’s right-hand man at Bramall Lane and then a year assisting Peter Reid and Eddie Gray at Elland Road. There was also a memorable stint at Rotherham United, again under Warnock, when the club stayed up against all the odds.

NOT TO BE: Disappointment for Kevin Blackwell and his Leeds United players after losing to Watford in the Championship play-off final in 2006

No wonder, therefore, Blackwell has a soft spot for Yorkshire. “I have not lived there for a few years but it is somewhere I always regarded as a good place to be,” he says.

“All the clubs I have been at were memorable for a reason and I was fortunate to have some good times.”

Blackwell’s reputation as a coach blossomed with the Blades, and in particular during the 2002-03 season that saw the club reach the semi-finals of both the FA and League Cups, plus the Championship play-off final.

“I was always open to new ideas,” he recalls about those days at the Lane. “Getting the players to use ice-cold plunge baths, things like that.

FAMILIAR FACES: Kevin Blackwell, then Sheffield United manager and Neil Warnock, then at Crystal Palace, exchange pleasantries before kick off. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

“I also worked closely with Prozone, who were based in Leeds. I listened a lot to Dean Riddle, the fitness guy who I worked with at both Sheffield United and Leeds.

“We managed to play something like 61 or 62 games that season. Towards the end, we were playing Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday and then Saturday again. We faced Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final on the Sunday and wanted to push the Forest game back to the Wednesday but (their manager) Paul Hart refused.

“We still won 1-0. Our energy levels never dropped and I had a few ’phone calls the next day from clubs, all wanting to know our secret. My reputation grew from there and it was then that Peter Reid head-hunted me at Leeds.”

Blackwell’s move to the Premier League during the summer of 2003 did not work out as planned.

Reid was sacked just four months later and Leeds relegated the following May. With the club in dire financial straits and a fire-sale of the top names well under way, Blackwell was appointed manager.

“The biggest regret I have is never getting hold of Leeds when the club was stable,” he says. “I had been so excited when I got the ’phone call from ‘Reidy’. Here was a club who just a couple of years earlier had been in the Champions League semi-final.

“But, from day one, I could see Leeds were a club in trouble. Completely rudderless from the top. We were like a ship bobbing about in the water, with no engines working. Whichever way the wind blew, we went with it.

“A few years later, I did a business management diploma and one of the exercises was about what happens when a business has no leadership. I just wrote about my time at Leeds, the easiest assignment I ever had.

“I got the manager’s job after we had been relegated. It was a real time of transition. The thing that stands out is the first day of pre-season. I had brought a few lads in like Matthew Spring and Clarke Carlisle. They all turned up in their Ford Focus cars or whatever, all parked next to the Porsches and Bentleys of the players who were about to leave but hadn’t been able to get their moves away.”

Blackwell brought some much-needed stability in his first year as manager. United, by then owned by Ken Bates, reached the play-off final in his second year, only to lose 3-0 against Watford in the Millennium Stadium.

It was the first of two appearances in the final for Blackwell inside three years, his Sheffield United side losing to Burnley at Wembley in 2009.

Other spells in charge of Luton Town and Bury mean Blackwell has more than 400 games to his name as a manager but the last few years have been spent reunited with Warnock.

Asked about the future and possibly striking out on his own again, the Bluebirds assistant, 60 last month, said: “Everyone wants to carry on doing their job. Age is just a number so who knows how long I will carry on?

“But I won’t go into management again if it is going to be a struggle. I have done that job, too many times. It is hard and drags you down. Fighting fires is hard and there is no chance to express yourself.

“Anyway, I am happy here at Cardiff. Myself and Neil work together brilliantly. Always have. Our record is unbelievable.”

Six promotions but keeping Rotherham United up was the highlight for Kevin Blackwell

Cardiff City’s promotion last season was the sixth Kevin Blackwell had enjoyed under Neil Warnock, either as a player or a coach.

In terms of satisfaction, however, the former goalkeeper insists keeping Rotherham United in the Championship after the pair took over in February, 2016, was just as satisfying.

“Things looked really bleak when we arrived,” said Blackwell, whose other promotions with Warnock are Scarborough (1987), Notts County (1990 and 1991), Huddersfield (1995) and Plymouth (1996). “The club was adrift and the next nine games included facing seven of the top 10.

“Everyone kept saying, ‘What are you two doing there?’ But Neil had rung and asked if I fancied it. So, in we went.

“That first day at Rotherham, the gaffer sat the players down and said, ‘We have not come here to be relegated’. And we went on an amazing run, beating teams like Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough. We also drew 3-3 with Derby after being three goals down with about 10 minutes to go.

“Everyone in the game says it was one of the most remarkable jobs we did. I agree. What we achieved at Rotherham was right up there with any of the promotions in terms of beating the odds.”