Noel Blake: The Big Interview

Noel Blake was voted Pompey player of the season for two successive years (1986 and 1987)

Noel Blake was voted Pompey player of the season for two successive years (1986 and 1987)

Kal Naismith celebrates scoring for Pompey against Grimsby. Picture: Joe Pepler

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In his first season with Pompey, Noel Blake failed to settle on the south coast, scored more own goals than Blues goals, encountered racism from a minority of his own fans and threatened to leave the club.

Hard to believe then, that just two years later the uncompromising central defender was picking up a second successive player-of-the-season award after leading the club to top-flight football for the first time in 28 years.

Blake’s tale of triumph over adversity looked set to continue at the highest level, until a knee operation on the eve of the 1987-88 season put paid to his hopes of continuing a dominant defensive partnership with Billy Gilbert.

He was ruled out for the rest of the calendar year as Alan Ball’s struggling side were embroiled in an unsuccessful fight against the drop.

Blake then received the shock double disappointment of being told his Blues contract would not be extended upon their relegation.

So, from the face that didn’t fit to a flabbergasted Fratton favourite, how exactly does no-nonsense Noel look back on an incomparable stay at PO4?

‘The greatest four years of my career,’ is the unequivocal reply.

‘I didn’t settle in straight away, though, it took a few months.

‘My wife was back in Birmingham expecting our second child and I was living in hotels and rented accommodation.

‘I didn’t do a pre-season, either.

‘There were six new players who the gaffer brought in, of which I was the last one.

‘Although we started the campaign reasonably well, my form disintegrated a bit in October/November time.

‘The team had a dip – I made one or two mistakes which cost us and went through a well-documented rough patch on and off the field.’

Magnanimous Blake, now 52, is in no mood to allow the early reprehensible off-field problems he faced define his Pompey stay or relationship with the Fratton faithful he grew to love, though.

He said: ‘Without going over it – I wasn’t pleased (the Blues’ summer signing demanded out after suffering abuse described by chairman John Deacon as ‘disgusting’ from a small section of his own so-called fans).

‘But the true Pompey people soon showed their colours and we kicked on in more ways than one, both on and off the field.

‘Sometimes disappointing moments make you stronger.

‘I grew into the city, my family grew into the city and I experienced more great memories than hiccups – they are minor things looking back now.

‘As a team, we also went on.

‘Myself and Bill (Gilbert) grew stronger together over time.’

Blake and Pompey’s resilience were tested as the south-coast club suffered the agony of back-to-back failed promotion bids.

Three points and then one goal respectively, were enough to deny Ball’s Blues a taste of the big time in 1985 and 1986 but the close-knit group, who had bonded off the pitch, struck it third-time lucky.

Blake recalled: ‘We went through a lot of things.

‘We missed out two years on the trot having led the way, so that was hard to take.

‘But we stuck together and virtually the same group of players finished the job off in 1987, which was very satisfying.

‘We were very close. Cowplain Social Club was where we’d hang out, play pool or snooker and have a few beers.

‘But we were a very fit side – the navy used to take our pre-season training up at Mercury. The manager was very demanding fitness-wise so we worked very hard.’

With Blake marshalling the Blues to an impressive 19 clean sheets in 42 games on the pitch, it was perhaps inevitable that talk of an international call-up arose for the highly-rated defender.

Holding a British passport, the Jamaica-born tough tackler was tipped by manager Ball to represent Wales and came close to linking up with the Dragons.

He said: ‘I had a good season.

‘The fact of the matter was that because I was born in Jamaica I could’ve played for any of the home nations.

‘I spoke to the Welsh national team on a number of occasions – Mike England was the manager – but I kept having tight hamstrings.

‘At the time I wasn’t ever in a fit state physically.

‘From then on it was a case of if the call came, it came but it didn’t and that’s the way things were.’

With tight hamstrings preventing Blake from international appearances, it was a more severe injury which thwarted the Blues bruiser from becoming a top-flight main stay.

Following his £110,000 arrival from Birmingham, Blake had missed just one game in three seasons of football.

But an untimely knee operation forced him to sit out the remainder of the year as financially-hit Pompey struggled on the pitch in his absence.

‘I injured my knee in a pre-season game in Spain and it is still something I suffer from now – it’s bone against bone,’ he said.

‘I didn’t play again until the end of the year when we drew 1-1 with Watford.

‘I remember going along to the first game of the season at Oxford and watching us getting beat.

‘I went along because nobody knew I was injured and the manager wanted to keep it quiet.

‘But when people saw the teamsheets they were asking questions and two days later I had the operation.

‘To have not missed a game for the club and then been out with a knee injury for so long was both gutting and disappointing.

‘It is well-documented the club had financial issues – people also moved on and we found ourselves down the bottom of the table.

‘We had a good little run in the league when I got back – not just because of me – but the team got going. Sadly, though, we couldn’t pull ourselves out of danger.

‘We had a decent run in the FA Cup as well – losing to Luton in the quarter-finals on a plastic pitch.

‘Had we played them on grass my gut feeling is we would have made it to Wembley.’

The 1988 summer of change saw chairman Deacon sell relegated Pompey to Jim Gregory.

But with a new owner came new ideas and skipper Blake was as surprised as anyone to hear he was surplus to requirements.

He said: ‘It wasn’t my choice to leave Pompey.

‘I was still having some issues with my knee and had heard the new chairman wanted to shake the club up.

‘I was called in by Jim Gregory as the captain and informed that because my knee was going and this and that was happening, he was giving me a free transfer,

‘I said what? I can still picture it now, being in total shock – dumbfounded for a few hours.

‘Then I had to start the process of looking for a new club.’

After meeting with previous club Birmingham, sought-after Blake signed for Leeds but left PO4 with good memories of the Blues.

He added: ‘Pompey is a special place for me and my family and I will always look out for the club and its results.

‘My youngest child was born there and we nicknamed her the Pompey doughnut – I’ve got nothing but great memories.’

Following a long career, Blake turned his hand to coaching after becoming a player-manager at final club Exeter City.

He is currently the first-team coach at Championship side Blackpool.

He holds the Uefa Pro Licence – the highest possible qualification – and in a seven-year tenure with the FA led England’s under-19s side to successive European Championship semi-finals in 2010 and 2012, working with the likes of Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley among others.

NOEL BLAKE ON...

...THAT OWN GOAL

(Blake and team-mate Alan Knight were involved in a comical own goal in a 3-2 defeat at Wimbledon in October 1984)

The ball was played back to me from Kevin Dillon and I just helped it back on without looking.

In the meantime Knightsie had been injured conceding our first goal, so was busy rubbing his knee.

The next thing I knew was little Wimbledon striker Andy Sayer running past me with his hands in the air.

As I looked round Knightsie was out of his goal, the ball had rolled past him and was trickling over the line.

I blame myself because I should have turned around and looked – back in those days the goalkeeper could still pick the ball up!

...HIS BATTLE AT BLACKPOOL

I’m the first-team coach at Championship Blackpool where I face a big challenge.

It’s been well documented the pre-season that we never had but we are all having a good go (avoiding relegation).

I can’t fault the players’ effort or convictions – that’s my first demand.

We’ll keep chipping away and hopefully the tide will soon turn for us.

...SILENCING SPURS
We withstood the test of time at White Hart Lane against a good Tottenham side with the likes of Hoddle, Clemence and Hughton.

After another 0-0 draw at Fratton we won the toss for the second replay (December 1985) and my header proved the winner.

It was great to upset our higher-league opponents.

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