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Into the ‘Black’ as United aim for Premier League again

FOR A man who learnt his managerial trade under Neil Warnock, football’s marmite equivalent, it is perhaps unsurprising that Sheffield United chief Kevin Blackwell splits opinion almost 50/50 at Bramall Lane.

Blackwell, who worked with Warnock at Scarborough, Notts County, Torquay United, Huddersfield, Plymouth and Bury, celebrated two years in the Bramall Lane hotseat last week with a 2-0 victory over Bristol City. But despite possessing an impressive record in charge  with 48 victories from 107 games in charge – Blackwell is still forced to deal with a mounting feeling of unrest on the terraces, from a United faithful hungry to see Premier League football again.

“Some of the crowd have been on the backs of the players, and you can understand why at times,” Blackwell said. “But the situation is difficult.”

Despite his over-reliance on long-ball tactics, Blackwell’s win ratio is hard to ignore – and the fact that United still sit three points outside the Championship’s Play Off positions is made even more remarkable by the fact that he has been forced to compete with a near-impossible injury crisis this season.

By February, Blackwell has already used more players this term than the whole of the last – where they reached the Play Off final, only to lose 1-0 to Burnley – and has handed a United debut to an astonishing 20 players, in a season overshadowed by the departures of stars David Cotterill, Kyle Naughton, Kyle Walker and Matthew Kilgallon.

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United’s increasingly-fragile finances forced the sale of that quartet – and means that only captain Chris Morgan remains from the back four that played at Wembley. A Play Off final defeat would damage any club – but Blackwell is only beginning to realise quite how costly that defeat under the iconic arch has been.

“Every time we try to build a team it’s smashed,” he said.

“We have a whole new back four, but only two players in the team played in the Play-Off final.”

United’s precarious financial situation means Blackwell is forced to survive on loans and free transfers, as he aims to assemble a squad capable of challenging for Premier League status. It is a task not unfamiliar to the 51-year-old, however, having endured difficult spells at cash-strapped Leeds United and Luton Town.

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Under his guidance, however, Leeds were one game away from the Premier League – capitulating in the Play Off final, and losing 3-0 to Watford. Similar disappointment last May must have hurt Blackwell hard – and, indeed, he briefly, and publicly, contemplated resignation in the immediate aftermath, after watching Burnley’s players celebrate their new-found top-flight status.

But he was persuaded to stay by chairman Kevin McCabe, and celebrated two years in charge on Valentine’s Day.  Clearly, his love affair with United runs deep.

“This is such a big club and there is a big interest with the media, both local and national,” he said.

“The fans have their opinions and express them; they are passionate and care about the club. It’s a great club and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“There have been a lot of things happening in the last two years, but I’m proud to say that we are still fighting for promotion.

“If we can have an injury-free run I’m confident we can finish in the top six – with stability, we are a very capable unit.”

Stability was one thing that was lacking, when Blackwell arrived in South Yorkshire. He initially agreed to work without a contract, and famously slept on his chairman’s camp bed before taking his first training session as United manager.

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The club were in disarray – left reeling after the disastrous reign of Bryan Robson. Recently, and controversially, relegated from the Premier League on goal difference, Robson replaced Neil Warnock in charge and bought big – but by the time he was relieved of his duties, United were facing the very realistic proposition of a second relegation in two seasons.

“It’s been an interesting two years,” Blackwell admitted.

“On my arrival we were too close to the bottom of the Championship and in a relegation dogfight, since then we have always been in and around the top six.”

Having accepted the United job before his “bottom lip met my top lip”, Blackwell turned the club around, and they remarkably went into the last game of the season with a mathematical chance of making the Play-Offs. Needless to say, they failed – but succeeded the following season.

And if Blackwell can keep his threadbare squad injury-free, he may do so yet again.

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