There are certain moments in football that you look back on and pinpoint the beginnings of a new era—when everything started. In December 2008, Huddersfield Town appointed 36-year-old Lee Clark as the club’s new manager. He brought with him a wealth of experience, with Terry McDermott as assistant manager, Derek Fazackerley as first team coach and Steve Black as performance coach.
Clark’s appointment came at a testing time. It was the club’s centenary season, 16,000 season tickets had been sold for £100 each, old school manager Stan Ternent had been sacked during the previous month and it was all going a bit wrong. Chairman-elect Dean Hoyle had taken sole charge and the fans were under no illusion that this was the beginning of something different. Clark was his man, and he would be backed. The appointment of a highly respected coaching team was the first sign of such intent.
No one in Huddersfield had ever heard of the phrase “performance coach” before Steve Black arrived, but it sounded terribly exciting. He came with a good reputation, and perhaps was most well known as the mentor of rugby union player Jonny Wilkinson. But he’d also worked at Newcastle United in the 1990s during Kevin Keegan’s reign, and it was at St. James Park that Clark first encountered him.
Upon his appointment at Town, Clark had this to say about Black:
“Steve’s main area is in fitness and conditioning, but he adds so much more in terms of motivating and the psychology of both the players and the staff in the first team, reserves and the academy. His role is absolutely vital.”
Hoyle was similarly glowing in his assessment:
“A lot of people will be intrigued by the appointment of Steve Black as performance coach, and he brings a different aspect to the club. In order to play the style of football that Lee wants from his team, they will have to be extremely fit, and Lee believes that Steve will bring a new dimension to the club. As well as fitness coaching, Steve is an adept psychologist, and he will instil confidence into the players here.”
From Bouncer to Football via Boxing
Black’s life was certainly an interesting one. He was a bouncer by the age of 16 and ventured into professional boxing for a brief period, though he would be the first to admit that he wasn’t the best at it. He later used that experience to help Glenn McCrory with his conditioning, helping him make the cruiserweight limit for his fight in Moscow, the first to take place in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Black left his early life of violence behind and went on to become one of the world’s leading motivational speakers and sports psychologists.
He'd coached junior football as a young man, but first ventured into professional football in 1991 when he joined Newcastle United’s coaching staff. Though he joined under a different regime, he is best remembered as being part of Kevin Keegan’s backroom team during the Great Entertainers era at the club. Keegan once referred to Black as “the best one-to-one coach in the world”. He also worked with Sunderland between 1993 and 1998.
Rugby Union, Football, and Acting
He combined his football roles with jobs in rugby union, becoming conditioning coach at Newcastle Falcons in 1996. It was here that Black first encountered Jonny Wilkinson, the man who would go on to win the World Cup for England in 2003. Wilkinson has credited Black as his mentor and his quote, “Blackie is an inspirational character with a totally unique gift. He is a true friend,” featured on the front cover of Black’s 2005 autobiography, Blackie: The Steve Black Story. Black’s time with the Falcons came to an end in 1999. He also held roles with both Wales and the British & Irish Lions between 1998 and 2000 and then in 2001, respectively.
In 1999, he returned to football, becoming the conditioning coach at Fulham under Jean Tigana and then in 2000, he returned to Sunderland in the same role. He combined this with a second spell at Newcastle Falcons, beginning in 2000 and lasting until 2007. He had a short spell at Norwich City between 2007 and 2008 as conditioning coach, where Lee Clark was the reserve team manager. When Clark was appointed at Town in December 2008, Black followed him.
As mentioned, Black enjoyed a wide and varied career and even had an extremely brief acting job, appearing in an episode of Jimmy Nail’s Spender series in 1992, with Nail being counted as a personal friend of Black’s. Black even spoke about the possibility of Nail coming to watch Town, as his father had played for the club in the 1930s. Away from football, rugby and boxing, Black recently worked with Cleveland Police as part of their leadership and coaching work.
Mr. Motivator at Huddersfield Town
When he was appointed at Town, “Blackie” soon had his own column in the Examiner and his famous “onwards and upwards” quote was soon rubbing off on people. His methods at the time were novel. Michael Collins explained in a 2009 interview:
“The difference has been huge, on me personally. At the start of the season, I was frozen out a little bit, and my confidence took a bit of a knock. It was a frustrating and unusual time, but Gerry Murphy came in, my old academy manager, and he helped me settle back down. Then the new [management] team changed the mood completely. If you could see the change from the start of the season to how it is now, it’s unbelievable. You wouldn’t recognise it. It’s been brilliant to work with him but you have to buy into it. You’ve got to want to believe that it can work, and if you do - I can only speak from my experience, but it does seem to be working.”
Fellow Town player Malvin Kamara also praised Blackie on his personal blog:
“Basically, he gets everyone up for the game because of his incredible passion. It rubs off on you and everyone feeds off it. He manages to whip everyone up – not into a blind frenzy but more of a controlled rage. I don't know exactly how to explain it, you just feel really up for it but controlled at the same time.”
After Ternent’s departure, Town gradually improved under caretaker manager Gerry Murphy. Things went a step further once Clark had taken on the job, with an attractive style of play improved fitness regime. Town finished in 9th place, eight points from the playoffs at the end of 2008-09.
For the 2009-10 season, the aim was clear—playoffs at a minimum. Clark was backed heavily by Hoyle. A number of new players were signed, including Lee Peltier, Peter Clarke, Jordan Rhodes, Theo Robinson, Robbie Simpson, Antony Kay and Danny Drinkwater. Town fans were delighted with the exciting brand of football employed by Clark and even more by the fitness of the team. Lee Clark mentioned this a few months into the season:
“Having a settled side has been huge for us, because the things the players are doing become second nature and partnerships develop. The fact we’ve had few injuries and been able to name an unchanged side is exactly why I appointed Steve Black in the first place—because I knew he was the best in the business.”
While at Town, Black was occasionally ribbed for his methods, with fans claiming he was there to give the players high-fives and not much else. However, there never seemed to be any injuries while Black was at the club and he acknowledged this himself, claiming that many soft tissue injuries resulted from static stretching in the pre-match warm-up and because of this, the warm-up would always see the players on the move. Anyone who got to the ground early enough could witness the warm-ups, which were a far cry from what had gone before.
Black was also known to be extremely approachable, being known to chat to fans who had arrived early at away games. He always seemed to have time for everyone. This warmth extended to local journalists too. Former Examiner reporter Doug Thomson tweeted after hearing the news of Black’s death: “Really sad to hear this. Steve was a one-off, great to interview and listen to. A top-class man-manager and a funny, friendly person.”
Town finished 6th in 2009-10, reaching the League One playoffs for the first time since 2006. Sadly, after a 0-0 draw with Millwall at home, they fell short in the away leg, succumbing 2-0. One overriding memory of Black is seeing him on the pitch after the game, making sure that all the players got off safely while Millwall fans invaded it.
For the 2010-11 season, there was a bit more expectation on the club to gain promotion to the Championship. True to form, Clark signed another 10 players in the pre-season and after seven games found themselves top of League One. This was then followed by three consecutive losses and Town tumbled to 11th. Still, by November, Town were 2nd in the table.
Black was big on motivation and also loyal to players and his manager, with this ultimately leading to his departure from the club. Following a defeat to Oldham Athletic in November, Hoyle took aim at the players in his programme notes for the following game, a home tie with Exeter City. He blasted the players and questioned their effort in the notes.
Town were beaten by Exeter and the mood amongst the players and staff was sullen. Hoyle convened a meeting to apologise to the players and admit that he’d overstepped the mark. During the meeting, Black had a few choice words for Hoyle which ultimately led to his departure from the club. Terry McDermott later commented in his autobiography, “We lost a little bit of spirit with Steve’s departure because everyone liked him.”
After his departure in November 2010, Black concentrated on motivational speaking, but was tempted back into football on a number of occasions. He was occasionally spotted at Birmingham City while Lee Clark was the manager and was employed as performance consultant at Queens Park Rangers between 2014 and 2015. He also worked with Joey Barton on a personal basis. His final role in the game was at Fleetwood Town, under Barton, once again as performance consultant.
Tributes have poured in over the weekend from anyone and everyone. Former Town player Anthony Pilkington said:
“Gutted to hear the news this legend has passed away. One of, if not the best human I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in my football career, really looked after me and my family after my injury and helped me get back to my best. Rest in peace Blackie, you are one of a kind.”
Incredible, especially as Black had left the club months before Pilkington’s injury in March 2011.
The club expressed similar thoughts upon hearing the news: “Steve was a huge part of Lee Clark’s management team. He’ll be remembered for his huge heart and infectious positivity.”
Former Town assistant manager Terry McDermott shared his sadness: “Devastated to wake up to the news my big mate Blackie has passed away. Words can’t do justice, what a top bloke he was and he will be missed very much by everyone who knew him”.
Legacy at Town
Indeed, it seemed from that moment that Clark lost his spark. He never seemed to be the same after that, having suffered the departures of Black and Derek Fazackerley a month before, the style of play changed, with Clark becoming more risk-averse, especially as the unbeaten run began later in the season. Clark eventually left the club in February 2012. Although he’d lost just three games in 50, many fans were in agreement that it was the correct decision. Simon Grayson eventually replaced him and took Town to the Championship via the playoffs at the end of the season.
Town have now spent a decade above the third-tier. The reign of Lee Clark eventually amounted to nothing trophy-wise, but it achieved something else: It regalvanised a fed-up fanbase that was used to mediocrity. Steve Black played a big part in that and will be fondly remembered by all at Huddersfield Town.
Perhaps it’s fitting to finish with a quote from Black just a couple of months into his time at Town, which arguably summed him up:
“I'm the most optimistic person in the world. Well, I'm certainly up there. But no matter how positive I am, I'm not going to break the world high-jump record. What I'm suggesting is, when you work with players, coaches and teams, if you get to know them and form a relationship with them, you can open their eyes to the possibilities that exist, realistically, for them. I'm not talking about Polyanna-ish nonsense. They can't have everything they want at any time. Actually, what we’re trying to change is habits. That's the difference between success and failure. Success is good habits, practised daily. Failure can be just one or two bad habits, practised daily. When you put them next to each other, it's amazing how similar they are.”
Steve Black passed away on Sunday 20th February at the age of 64. HTSA would like to pass on condolences to all his family and friends.