Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

Meet Sporting Gijon's very own 'Batman' looking to be a superhero once more against Valencia

Nick Blackman scored the winning goal in the first leg of the Copa del Rey fixture. He tells Andy Mitten about his journey to one of Spain's best-supported clubs after being released by Manchester United as a child

Sporting Gijon's Nick Blackman, left, in action during the Copa del Rey match against Eibar last month. EPA-EFE
Sporting Gijon's Nick Blackman, left, in action during the Copa del Rey match against Eibar last month. EPA-EFE

It’s the night before the big match in Valencia and Nick Blackman, a striker from Manchester, relaxes in his hotel room close to Valencia’s Mestalla. He hopes to have more success than Gary Neville, who grew up three miles away from him in Bury, had in his short stint as Valencia’s manager. More too than Manchester United - who Blackman supported as a child and played for until he was 13 - had last month when they were defeated by "Los Che" in Jose Mourinho’s wretched, penultimate game in charge.

Blackman knows he will start up front on Tuesday for Sporting Gijon, and this Copa del Rey tie against one of Spain’s biggest clubs had been good to him so far.

“I scored the winner in the first leg,” says the 29-year-old Englishman who plays for the lowest ranked team left in the last 16. “The manager didn’t say anything, he just shook my hand and nodded. It was 1-1 and I went on the pitch and we had a corner. The ball was cleared and was about to come in as a cross. I could see the 'keeper coming out and I thought ‘I’m going to get smashed if he gets this first’ but it was a risk worth taking and I got there first with a diving header. It was my first touch, my best moment since I arrived in Spain. Fans have been coming up to me in the street and that feels nice. One even came up to me when I was having my hair cut. They’re very passionate. Sporting are a very big club.”

He and Sporting have enjoyed every moment of their cup run. “We knocked Eibar out in the previous round. They’d beaten Real Madrid 3-0 and we went there a few days later and went 2-0 up against a strong, physical team. They pulled it back to 2-2, but we went through on away goals as we won the first leg.

Understandably, Blackman can’t wait to play at the Mestalla.

“We’ve been here since Saturday and we’ve been training at Valencia’s training ground, which I can't get my head around.”

It wouldn’t happen in Britain. British footballers don’t tend to play outside Britain. There are exceptions and a few high-profile ones, most notably Gareth Bale at Real Madrid, but the money is usually better in England and the success rate of British players abroad has been patchy.

“I don’t know them personally, but I’ve followed the careers of players like Jay Bothroyd [currently in Japan after playing in Italy and Thailand] and Colin Kazim-Richards [a Londoner playing in Mexico after spells in Turkey, Netherlands and Brazil]. They’ve left England, gone their own way and been successful. They’re an inspiration to me. I’m not small-minded; the world is a big place full of opportunities. Why not try them rather than limit yourself to one country?”

Blackman doesn’t do convention.

“My dad is from Barbados; my mum is from England,” he says. “Grandma is from Holland. Grandfather is Polish and an Auschwitz survivor. He lives in America now. He’s 91 and plays tennis every day. I take great inspiration and strength from his story and his struggles.”

Blackman, who is thus eligible to play for five different countries, grew up in Whitefield, a working-class area of north Manchester.

“I was a United fan,” he says. “Dad took me to Maine Road and tried to persuade me to support City, but it wasn’t for me. I was scouted by United at nine and played with lads like Danny Welbeck, Danny Drinkwater and Tom Cleverley. I was released at 13. It hit me hard, but I didn’t fully understand what was happening.”

Blackman was expelled from school but carried on playing football.

“I went on trial at Bury and Rochdale, then Macclesfield at 16. They signed me on a scholarship and I didn't look back. Paul Ince was then Macclesfield manager and gave me a professional contract and my league debut. I owe a lot to him. I was supposed to move with him to MK Dons but I got injured. When Ince moved to Blackburn Rovers he signed me for Blackburn after a chance meeting in a urinal in a changing room. I went from being on the bench in League 2 to training with Benni McCarthy, Jason Roberts, Robbie Fowler and Roque Santa Cruz. It was surreal.”

Ince got sacked and Blackman was sent on loan to Motherwell in Scotland.

“That was my first successful loan move. I wasn’t going to play every week in the Premier League, but I did make my debut. In fact, by the age of 21 I’d played in the top four divisions in England. I was also the first British-born Jewish player to play in the Premier League. My father is Christian, but my mother wanted us to understand Judaism out of respect for what her father went through. I don’t practice, I’m not religious, but if someone asks me my religion I’m proud of my background and what I am.”

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Read more from Andy Mitten:

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on goalscoring: I wasn't born with it, I studied finishing, I studied goals

Paul Pogba steps up as Manchester United shine again under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Jose Mourinho was not a popular figure at Manchester United - but it was lack of results that ultimately led to sack

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Blackman signed a three-year contract at Sheffield United, impressed and then moved to Premier League Reading months later in 2013.

“It happened quickly. I joined in January and I was soon playing at Old Trafford in the Premier League with all my family watching. That was nice for them. I’d not been the best student at school and was expelled when I was 13. I was never a bad kid, just cheeky and was suspended too many times.”

Blackman's sojourn in the Premier League proved short.

“Reading were relegated in May,” he explained. “And then it was stop-start. There were several managerial changes, a change in owners too. Players didn’t know where they stood, but things got better for me at Reading and I played some of my best football under Steve Clarke, a fantastic manager.”

This earned him a move to Derby County in January 2016 for a fee of £2.5 million.

“I could have gone to lower Premier League clubs, but Derby were favourites to be promoted, They were a big club with big crowds. I signed as a forward but was then played on the left wing. The manager was then sacked two weeks later. I had to roll with the punches, but it wasn’t what I expected.”

Blackman had an admirer from afar.

“Jordi Cruyff was at Maccabi Tel Aviv and he kept asking me to move there. It didn’t feel right, but when he contacted me again in 2017, it did feel right. There was the pull of European football and I’d always wanted to play abroad, think about football in a different way and live in a different way. I made the right decision.

“Jordi used his father’s football philosophy. It was simple, effective passing football.”

Blackman scored the winning goal away to Villarreal away in a Europa League tie, a match that put him on Sporting's radar. He says he loved his time in Tel Aviv before he returned to Derby, who held his contract. He had no future there and was up for another loan move this season. As well as sides in England’s second-tier Championship, there was another unlikely suitor in Sporting Gijon, relegated to Spain’s second tier but a huge club with average crowds of 20,000.

“I flew to Gijon and had a look around. I was impressed by the stadium and the size of the club and said yes. I knew that David Villa has played for Sporting but I didn't know too much about their history.”

Sporting, the club where Luis Enrique came through the ranks and which Spain’s manager still supports, was also the home of legendary striker Quini.

“The city is by the beach, but it has a feel of Manchester,” he says. “It’s a working-class city of honest people. I really like it.” A brother has joined him in Spain.

Now injury-free, Blackman has become a regular. “The fans call me 'Batman' and I see the logo with my name on it,” he says. “I enjoy that. I have Spanish lessons three times a week and I’m starting to understand it. I’m open minded. I’ll be available on a free transfer in the summer.”

But before he settles his future, he has an unexpected, big game away to Valencia in the cup to savour.

Updated: January 15, 2019 05:21 PM

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