Kevin Blackwell: Never one to mince his words
The former Leeds, Luton and Sheffield United boss is back in action at Bury after a two-year hiatus, reports Ben Collins
Kevin Blackwell's return to football management has been as dramatic as his departure from Sheffield United. Just three games into the 2010/11 season, Blackwell was sacked immediately after a 3-0 home defeat by QPR. After just missing out on the play-offs the season before, the Blades drew their Championship opener and lost 2-0 at League One Hartlepool in the League Cup.
They were then 3-0 down inside 23 minutes against QPR and, granted, it was a miserable performance by Blackwell's team. But they had thumped Barnsley 4-0 on the opening day, many pundits had already tipped the Hoops to win the league Ã¢ÂÂ which they did Ã¢ÂÂ and few of the Bramall Lane faithful would have expected the board to be so ruthless.
The Blades boss scans the horizon
While the press pack waited for the post-mortem, none of us thought Blackwell's position was in jeopardy. Yet the longer we waited, the more it seemed something was afoot. Rumour has it the word got out when, within earshot of a radio reporter in the tunnel, goalkeeper Steve Simonsen's young child said "So Daddy, why's the manager been sacked?"
Eventually we were handed a club statement confirming Blackwell's departure. After covering hundreds of games over the last decade it remains the only time I've seen a manager relieved of his duties within half an hour of the final whistle.
Moments later we saw Blackwell himself emerge from the players' entrance and wade through a clutch of sympathetic well-wishers before slumping into a waiting SUV. Despite being asked if he wished to give his side of the story, perhaps wisely he decided to keep his counsel.
Within nine months Sheffield United had had another three managers and been relegated to League One. No doubt many United fans have asked where they'd be now had Blackwell stayed in charge.
But as the SUV disappeared from view, so too did Blackwell. The former Leeds and Luton chief seemed to slip entirely off the radar for more than two years. Until last September, when he was named the new Bury boss.
Of all the names to be linked with the job, no one mentioned Blackwell. But before his first press conference he immediately earned the respect of the local media by explaining Ã¢ÂÂ off the record Ã¢ÂÂ the personal circumstances which had prevented him putting himself forward for any vacancies in the two years since that fateful day at Bramall Lane.
He assured the press that he'd still found time to keep his hand in, visiting clubs such as Real Madrid, Sao Paulo, Kaizer Chiefs, Houston Dynamo and Gent, as well as coaching in Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Sweden.
He also raised eyebrows by saying "a manager might want to play like Barcelona but finds out he's got Bognor Regis players". And so began Kevin Blackwell's lesson in how to make friends and influence people.
Back in the game at Bury
He took charge with Bury bottom of League One and yet to win a game, and after his first home match, a 1-0 defeat by Swindon, he said "some of the signings here are garbage" while slamming the squad's fitness.
It seemed questionable wisdom when he couldn't move those players on yet. And who was their next league game against? Crawley, managed by the man who made most of those signings, Richie Barker. The ex-Bury boss, who left on the eve of this season, responded by pointing out he'd finished 14th with that squad last season and shook hands with his successor after nicking a last-minute winner.
And so began the fun. Bury didn't win any of Blackwell's first five games, then only lost one in eight during October and November, winning five to edge their way out of the relegation zone. Sadly for Blackwell, they haven't won since the advent calendars went upand are now third from bottom, three points from safety.
There have been extenuating circumstances, but Blackwell rarely pulls a punch. He said that Bury, home of the black pudding, were "a pudding club" when he took over, with too many people in the comfort zone at Gigg Lane. You could see his point in December when the board had to take a short-term loan from the PFA to cover that month's wages, which resulted in the Lancashire club being put under a transfer embargo.
Blackwell claimed he hadn't been made aware of the state of the club's finances when offered the job and his frustration at a perceived lack of communication from the board threatened to spill over in a couple of post-match interviews.
But performances and results gradually improved, after which Blackwell admitted he had criticised the players "to see who sank and who swam. I'm glad I did it because most of the players are still here".
"Boss! Boss! Boss! Boss! Boss! Boss!"
Captain Steve Schumacher picked up the gauntlet and has led by example, becoming their leading scorer from midfield. Without those goals Bury may already have been cut adrift, as Blackwell's hands were tied for the first half of the transfer window.
Even now the loan has been repaid and the embargo lifted, Blackwell can still only sign loanees or free agents: Bury can't even afford to recall big-earner Shaun Harrad from his season-long loan at Cheltenham, never mind offering anyone a permanent contract.
However, they've pulled off a masterstroke by bringing back Blackpool defender Ashley Eastham and Bury-born Peterborough striker Nicky Ajose, both fan favourites from previous loan spells with the club, and the Shakers now have a fighting chance of climbing out of the relegation zone.
Blackwell maintains that managing Bury is "the biggest challenge in football" right now. Portsmouth's Guy Whittingham might have something to say about that, but it will certainly be a feather in Blackwell's cap if he can lead the Shakers to survival.