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Huddersfield aim to paint League One black

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Paul Fletcher | 09:30 UK time, Monday, 19 January 2009

After a 40-minute telephone conversation with Huddersfield Town performance director Steve Black I felt strangely optimistic, as though everything was all right with the world.

At different times Black quoted an American football coach, a motivational speaker, an expert in the management of change and celebrity chef Marco Pierre White - the last point relating to the importance of putting ingredients together in the right way if you want to produce a wonderful dish.

He also told an uplifting story about the first round of golf played by an American prisoner of war after he was released following several years in captivity and, just for good measure, threw in a Japanese business term - Kaizam - which relates to the concept of continual improvement.

Steve Black at Newcastle Falcons

When I think of somebody whose job is motivation I am instantly transported back to a man in the 1980s who wore hideous fluorescent lycra and pounded a nation into action with his sheer force of enthusiasm despite the delicate early hour.

Black is an entirely different operator.

He is probably best known for his close association with rugby union star Jonny Wilkinson. He could be described as Wilkinson's mentor. The two men have written a book together and in his previous role at Newcastle Falcons, Black worked with the fly-half on a daily basis.

On the day I spoke to Black, he said that Wilkinson had travelled down to Huddersfield and the two men were heading out to dinner as soon as the interview had finished. This made me feel slightly guilty as the conversation lengthened but Black assured me it was no problem. "I'm really enjoying myself," he said.

It is easy to see why he makes people feel good about themselves.

Jonny Wilkinson, Steve Black

But the journey that has taken him to his current role is fascinating in itself (this is something that would probably please Black, who told me that "success is a journey not a destination").

He was born and raised in Newcastle - one of his best mates was and still is actor Jimmy Nail - and by the age of 16 was working as a nightclub doorman. Several violent incidents, including one that resulted in a man's neck being ripped open after Black threw him through a door, persuaded him to try a different path.

He took a degree in sports science and has since worked in a variety of sports, including football (Black was at Newcastle during the era he terms "the entertainers", otherwise known as the first coming of King Kev), rugby and boxing, and he runs a company that operates largely in the business world conducting motivational seminars.

Right now, however, Black's attention is devoted to his new role at League One side Huddersfield Town. He arrived at the club as part of the backroom team that rookie manager Lee Clark brought in following his appointment late last year.

Clark, who has previously been assistant coach at Norwich, is in his first senior managerial role. The 36-year-old had a successful playing career with Newcastle, Sunderland and Fulham but is also remembered for one rash decision.

Clark was a Sunderland player when Newcastle reached the 1999 FA Cup Final. Clark is a lifelong Magpies fan and was spotted in the stands with the Toon supporters wearing a T-shirt that said "Sad Mackem *&!*&**". He never played for Sunderland again.

A lot has changed since then and by bringing in Black and experienced coach Derek Fazackerley with him to Huddersfield, Clark made a shrewd start to his managerial career. Black, for one, is a big fan and thinks that when Clark eventually retires as a manager he will no longer be remembered for anything that happened during his playing career.

"I really believe you could be seeing the start of a special managerial career," Black told me.

"His major contribution to professional football at the end of the journey will be on the managing and coaching side."

Black remembers Clark coaching youth teams when he was a player with Newcastle in the early 1990s and reckons he has an excellent football brain, a genuine love of the game and the respect of everyone he has ever coached. Black also argues that Clark is a "student manager" and what he means by this is a continual desire to learn and improve.

Lee Clark

But will he be able to make the tough decisions that come with the territory?

"Lee is a very honest person - and it is harder to make tough decisions if you are not 100% honest. He is a fair person and a good judge - and if you mix those two together you won't go far wrong," Black replied.

He describes his role at Huddersfield as looking after the preparation for games for the players, coaches and manager both physically and mentally.

Black has increased the intensity of training at the club since his arrival. The sessions are now slightly shorter but operate at game intensity or above. The theory behind this relates to habitual behaviour. The management team are trying to impress on their players that if they can make good, quick decisions every day in training it will become a habit on match day.

If a squad trains at below their maximum intensity then individuals have to rely on adrenalin to get them through games and Black contends that an entire squad cannot rely on this.

However, having come into the club mid-season Black argues that he has to be careful how this process is structured. "I will make adjustments to physical training but in a manner that ensures we still have a full tank so that we can play games at a cracking tempo."

I found it more difficult to get a grasp of the motivational side of Black's role.

"It is an extrapolation of everyday life," said Black. "It is like with your best friends - you try to create an environment that will allow them to flourish. It is not rocket science - it is as simple or complicated as that."

But how does Black do this?

He suggested this was about getting to know the environment, spending time in the gym getting to know the players, chatting over a cup of coffee and developing an understanding of what makes them tick. As the Geordie argues "everybody is different and should be treated as such".

A lot of Black's work in this regard is about managing the relationship between different people at the club. He wants to create a winning culture and likens his task to that of a sculptor. You keep chipping away and if the stuff you remove is not as meaningful as what remains then you "have a heck of a chance".

Black has told his players that "we can design and live an extraordinary life". I tried to imagine this scene taking place - how a group of professional footballers would react to words of such extraordinary optimism. Surely you have to buy into what Black believes for it to work?

"After all these years you get a feel for it, for whether they are ready for it or whether I need to take more time to get to know them and introduce things slowly, build and consolidate."

What is not in dispute is Black's enthusiasm for his role. The word "exciting" crops up in conversation again and again. He often talks to the players about their ambitions and sees his role as helping to fulfil them. He enthuses about the crowd and says with genuine pleasure that he has heard them chanting "Lee Clark's barmy army".

Black is continually looking at other sports for something that might give Huddersfield a slight advantage. "You cannot reinvent the wheel but you must look outside the square all the time," he said.

He keeps a journal, has done for years, and often refers back to them looking for something that might be applicable to his current situation. He keeps it by the side of his bed in case he wakes up with a thought or idea that is worth scribbling down.

On the day I spoke to Black he had been house hunting in the Yorkshire Dales. He doesn't want to stay in a hotel because it would make him feel like a visitor.

Town have won three, drawn two and lost just one of the six games since the new management team arrived at the club. The Terriers have 20 games left and are currently six points adrift of the play-off zone. Time will tell whether the management team will succeed but there is still everything to play for this season.

When I asked Black what he thought about the remaining months of the season I was not all that surprised when he said: "It is very exciting."


  • Comment number 1.

    Interesting stuff, Steve Black is a great man to have working for you. Huddersfield are lucky to have him at their club, he can only benefit their cause.

    As a Newcastle fan i'd like to wish Clarkie and him all the best this season, i'll be watching out for their results. I'd love to see him take over at St James Park one day - as a player he had such passion for Newcastle, even when he was playing against us for other clubs!

    Respectful actions such as never celebrating having scored against us and of course the SMB t-shirt at Wembley, those things will always endear him to Newcastle supporters.

  • Comment number 2.

    Kaizen, not kaizam. For what it's worth.

  • Comment number 3.

    Great Arcticle, Lee Clark was my first favourite Newcastle player as boy. i wish him all the best in his new career path.

  • Comment number 4.

    Every sports coach should have five minutes with a guy like this, his observations are simple but good for all sports.

    I was also privileged to attend a seminar by Dave Alred another influence on JW but also hugely motivating.

    Good blog

  • Comment number 5.

    I work in Kaizen and yes it is continuous improvement started by the Toyota car Company after the war. good to see sports people taking notice from the business world at last.

  • Comment number 6.

    Most interesting blog i've read on the BBC for a long time, really enjoyed it.

    i think its good that Huddersfield have took a chance on an inexperienced manager like Clarkie, and its a smart move to get some experianced heads around him such as Fazackerley, Terry Mac etc.

    I'm sure the SMB t'shirt incident was in a bar in the Bigg Market not actually at Wembley Mind!

  • Comment number 7.

    Optimism would be the perfect word to describe the feeling around the Galpharm since Lee Clark took over. He has assembled a superb team of management staff - better than any I can remember. I'm so excited to see what we can acheive this season. I think playoffs at the minimum.

    The players look inifintely more positive in their play at the moment, so I guess all the advice from Mr Black is doing the job.

  • Comment number 8.

    Brilliant blog Paul as ever. I'm from Huddersfield myself and Its nice to see a blog about the local team and the great start that Clark and his back room staff have made. The team look totally different from the dreadful mess that Stan Tennant left us in and it's interesting to see the methods they are using that are obviously doing something to the team!

    I think theres definately a lot of truth in what Black is saying and how can you not feel motivated when you have someone like that working close to you on a daily basis?

    Time will tell but I think Town are only on the up from here, Clark was a brilliant appointment.

  • Comment number 9.

    Optimism; that seems to be the watchword around Huddersfield Town at the moment. I'm all for the things that Black and Clark have instigated and they seem to be working.

    However, it'll be interesting to see what happens when results go against the Terriers (expect a defeat next Saturday at the Walkers Stadium, for example) for any length of time.

  • Comment number 10.

    That Black fellow made bugger all difference when he came to Norwich for a couple of weeks in a consultancy role.

    I'm sure he knows his stuff, but does all this new age guff really win matches??

  • Comment number 11.

    After reading this article I will definitely be looking out for Huddersfields' results.

    Just finished reading Tackling Life the book Steve Black wrote with Jonny Wilkinson. To me it brilliantly showed how to obtain clarity of thought aswell as remaining positive and have that positivity rub off on people around you.

    My best wishes to the new management for the remainder of the season and beyond...

  • Comment number 12.

    sheffield canary fails to mention that Lee Clark also made little diference at Carrow Road but hopefully that won't be the case at Town! 2 weeks was hardly time to solve all that is wrong at Norwich!

  • Comment number 13.

    When will football wake up to itself? The world economy has crashed, people are loosing their homes and all over the world people are starving. What does football do to help? It puts a price tag of 100 million pound on one player. I have followed football all my life and even at 41 still play the game, and still love it, but thats what it is "a game" it's sport, something people do for fun. It appears that's been forgotten. Why can't these stinking rich football clubs do some good with their cash, I'm sure there are kids with cancer all over the world that feel they could spend 100 million pounds much more wisely than Manchester City. Wake up football !!!!!

  • Comment number 14.

    I smell BS.
    Mr. Fletcher look up the word "charlatan."
    This is not new but a tired old gimmick.

  • Comment number 15.

    Now then,

    Thanks for all your comments.

    I can understand why people might feel cycnical about Steve and what he is all about - so I fully understand why Rabster says what he does.

    I guess time will be the ultimate judge of whether Lee Clark, Black and the others at the club are a success.

    I can only say that I am pretty cycnical myself about many aspects of modern culture's seeming obsession with self-help books, teach yourself to be like this or that books, conferences, seminars etc

    But remember that Black works on the physical fitness as well and alot of what he said to me did make sense.

    If he can get the players on side then I think you might see good things.

  • Comment number 16.

    As a Huddersfield Town fan i have to say i am glad to read such a thing.
    I have smiled throughout reading this.. Mr. Black has to be given recognition for the teams recent turn around and good run of form. Mr. Clark has possibly assembled the best possible managment team outside of the top 4 of the premier league and at Huddersfield every single fan is commited to Lee and his staff.
    I think the play off's are a reasonable target now for us and with Steve Black, Derek Fazackerly and Terry McDermott's help i'm sure Lee Clark will get it right for the club and very exciting times in the near future are a definite promise.

  • Comment number 17.

    Yes I am a Town fan. I would just like to say that Mr Hoyle has brought in a team of people who are very ambitious and will take Huddersfield to another level. But Lee Clark and his staff need time to achieve what we all want which is promotion. Today in football everone wants success NOW.
    We must be patient. I would not be bothered if we waited another season to get promoted. A good manager brings in players who make a difference. Over the years we have signed quite a lot of second rate players. Money is not unlimited and only the right players should be purchased.
    Its great to be a Town Fan at the moment but be patient. Success will come.


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