x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A shot at the big time

When Sheffield United face Burnley today for the prize of being in the Premier League, Kevin Blackwell is desperately hoping his seventh play-off final will provide happier memories.

Sheffield United's manager Kevin Blackwell, centre, reacts following a failed strike on goal during a Championship match against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.
Sheffield United's manager Kevin Blackwell, centre, reacts following a failed strike on goal during a Championship match against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.

Football can be such a lonely place when things do not turn out favourably. Kevin Blackwell felt such utter devastation the last time he led a team to the Championship play-off final that he compared it to the feeling when you lose a loved one. It was three years ago when Leeds United were denied a return to the Premier League, well-beaten 3-0 by Watford at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. Ten games into the next season, he was dismissed from his Elland Road post.

It was a difficult road back, taking charge of financially-crippled Luton before the challenge of bringing Sheffield United back into the top flight after their relegation in 2007. When the Blades face Burnley today for the £60 million (Dh350m) prize of being in the Premier League, Blackwell is desperately hoping his seventh play-off final as a player, coach and manager will provide happier memories. "There was such an empty feeling after that defeat with Leeds, it's hard to describe," he says.

"My mum died and I know how low I was then. This was a feeling that can't be the same as that, but it was devastating. "You question everything that you did, you replay the build up, the team selection, the tactics. You just question everything. "Time recovers you. What picked me up? I suppose having to prove I could do it all again. I have had some hard times in my management career, but the knock backs do drive you on.

"Leaving Leeds in the manner that I did was the lowest point in my career. Many people rang me afterwards and said I'd been harshly treated. "Yes it hurt and I had to deal with what happened, but it made me a stronger person. To earn the right to be successful you have to graft, dig deep, and I do. You have to know what it is to make you successful. What are the pains and pitfalls? Believe me, if it's given to you on a plate, when times get tough, you won't know how to get out of it.

"I look back at that play-off final with Leeds and realise I'd taken a big club to the biggest, wealthiest game in the world. That takes some achieving. I lost my job, but I felt that if I did that there, I could do it again. Now I have." Blackwell has no doubt the Premier League is the place to prove his worth, despite the fact that newly-promoted clubs - such as West Brom this season - often make an immediate return to the Championship.

Some critics suggest it might be better to be a solid side in a lower league than to endure a season of struggle among the top teams. It is not a philosophy shared by Blackwell, who added: "I'd swap with them. I know exactly what people are on about when they say that, and winning is great, but you have to put yourself on the line. "In every walk of life whether it is selling cars or being a leader of industry, you have got to want to be the best.

"If you want to be the best in football you have to get into the Premier League, it's as simple as that. "People watch it all around the world. My brother-in-law works in Dubai and it's massive there. "Whether you win every week, that would dictate on finances, player recruitment and your tactics, but you have to find that out. I'm desperate to do it and this club is desperate to be there." akhan@thenational.ae

Sheffield United v Burnley, KO 6pm, Showsports 2