Interview: Eric Black, former Aberdeen player

Striker who helped Aberdeen conquer Europe believes their current plight goes deeper than the management team

ERIC Black has looked on despairingly as a succession of decent men have tried and failed to cure the malaise at his former club. Every avenue has been explored, from the local lad (Steve Paterson) to the foreigner (Ebbe Skovdahl); the legend (Mark McGhee) and now the old hand. If Craig Brown and Archie Knox, with 135 years’ experience between them, cannot make any headway at Aberdeen, maybe it will be time to recognise that the problem is not in the manager’s office.

Black has learned a lot from the two veterans now wrestling with our game’s perennial underachievers. He was a youth coach with the Scottish Football Association when Brown was in charge of the national side. He was a teenager at Pittodrie during the glory days when Knox was Alex Ferguson’s assistant. His string of vital goals in the finals of major competitions included one against Real Madrid in the 1983 Cup Winners’ Cup triumph.

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Two years before that, when Black was only 17, he upset one of the club’s senior players by nutmegging him on the training ground, a manoeuvre that led Knox to pull him aside. “Next time you get the ball, do exactly the same,” said Knox. “If he’s not good enough, that’s his problem.”

You won’t find Black blaming either of these men for the club’s latest crisis. “They’re top class, the two of them, absolutely top-class individuals as coaches, tacticians, whatever you want. I’ve worked with both of them for an extensive amount of time, and they’re exceptionally good. If they can’t get it right, there’s got to be other reasons. That would be my thinking.”

No wonder the game’s biggest names are not forming an orderly queue outside Pittodrie on each occasion that the managerial vacancy arises. Black and Gordon Strachan, another Dons hero, are among those repeatedly linked with the position. “I have been approached before, but that was a while ago, and I preferred to stay in the Premiership,” Black says. “That’s where I wanted to be working. I was happy doing that.”

Plenty have speculated already as to the “other reasons” for Aberdeen’s continued failings. Expectations are too high. Stewart Milne, the club’s chairman, does not invest enough money. Players, like managers, do not regard it as a wise career move. Black says that the club’s economic standing does not correspond with the city’s, which means that the supporters’ demands are not easily met. “The area has a lot of money, but it is not necessarily feeding into the club so they work with the same budgets as I’m sure a lot of other clubs do. It’s so difficult to attract the type of player that I suppose a manager would want.”

And then there is the club’s location. If the salary offered to a player is matched by a club in the Central Belt, there is only going to be one winner. Black had the same problem at Sunderland, where he was assistant manager to Steve Bruce until the two were sacked at the end of last month. What the team patently lacked was a striker, but Darren Bent had left to join Aston Villa and Peter Crouch, a summer signing target, plumped for Stoke City on deadline day.

“We found it difficult to attract players to the north-east. With people like Crouch, we thought that a deal had been done, but as soon as a Midlands club or a London club come in, you’re in trouble. It’s really hard. We tried everything we could to keep Darren Bent, but after a period of time, they decide they maybe want to move on to other things. He obviously thought that going to Villa was a bigger move, with more money, but it can be geographical as well.”

Building a team is more challenging now than it used to be, especially in the provinces. Aberdeen will never again conquer Europe like they did in Black’s day. He says that, in the Barclays Premier League, the obsession with money is such that it is more difficult than ever for the mid-ranking clubs to punch above their weight.

It is a side of the modern game that disappoints him. “Money is a motivating factor for about 95 per cent of players starting out. And once they have a certain amount, they don’t fulfil their potential. They don’t strive to be the best that they can be. I’m not saying they’re all like that, but a lot of them tend to sit at a level and never progress. That might be for financial reasons. If they’re not getting a game, they just move on to another club, and there’s no stability.”

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Squads are bigger than they used to be, and the players, essentially competitive animals, are not inclined to look out for each other. “They are like little entities, little companies almost. Their agents are constantly trying to move them on to get another pay day. So it’s hard to get that team spirit, that thing where people are all focused on the same thing. I even see it when they get on the team bus wearing their headsets. It used to be that everyone was chatting away.”

A year ago, Sunderland were sixth in the league, but after Bent’s departure, results deteriorated. When Asamoah Gyan, another striker, left in September, Bruce claimed that “parasites” had turned his head. Bruce and Black presided over just two wins in 13 league matches, but the clamour for their removal began after a defeat by Newcastle United on the second weekend of the season.

“I must admit, I got a smell of it after that game. The response to that was ridiculously exaggerated. Having finished tenth the season before, we drew away to Liverpool on the opening day, which wasn’t the worst result in the world, but we lost to Newcastle, and when I saw the response of the local press, I thought, ‘that just isn’t right’. From then on, it was a downward spiral. Obviously, if we’d gone on a run of nine victories, then we’d still be there, but I don’t think the atmosphere in the stadium helped.”

Unemployment is not a new experience to Black, now 48, and “battle-hardened”. An early taste of it came at the end of his turbulent spell as assistant manager to John Barnes at Celtic, an era followed by the arrival of Martin O’Neill, now Bruce’s successor at Sunderland.

O’Neill, in fact, watched from the stand on Saturday as Black, who knew that his future was elsewhere, took the team against Wolverhampton Wanderers. “It was a bit of a surreal experience, but to be fair, Martin couldn’t have handled things any better. I couldn’t fault him. I think he will do well. He’s an experienced manager, a very successful one, but I still think he will need to spend money in January to bring in a recognised goalscorer. I don’t see any other way of resolving it.”

O’Neill will also have a decision to make on the future of Craig Gordon. The Scotland goalkeeper’s contract is up at the end of the season, but his injury problems have been such that Bruce would not enter into discussions about a new deal. The former Hearts player, signed for £9 million by Roy Keane four years ago, has not played for ten months, a period in which Sunderland signed Kieran Westwood, the highly-rated Irishman.

Black remains confident that Gordon will return to his best. “If he can get his knee resolved – and that seems to be going in the right direction – then I don’t have any doubt. He’ll work hard enough, I know that much. Unfortunately for Craig, you need a goalkeeper. When Craig was out, you have to bring in a replacement, and that replacement has now taken the No.1 spot. But goalkeepers are aware of the politics, they’re aware of the competition, and Craig’s big enough and strong enough to deal with it.”

Black, too, is ready to bounce back, but not before Christmas, which he wants to enjoy at his home in Leamington Spa. Then there will be a holiday in Oman with his wife, followed by a trek round Europe to look at coaching methods. With that in mind, he is learning Spanish, thereby adding to the three languages in which he is already fluent. “French, German and, yes, a smattering of English,” says Black whose playing days were curtailed by injury after five years with Metz.

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Apart from that, all he can do is wait for the telephone to ring. He doesn’t rule out becoming a manager in his own right, as he was at Motherwell and Coventry City, nor does he close the door on Scotland – “I’m not good enough to pick and choose where I work” – but his immediate preference is to follow Bruce, with whom he also worked at Birmingham City and Wigan Athletic. “I still feel that I’m part of a team with Steve so that would be my priority. I’ve certainly enjoyed the experience of working with him and working in the Premier League. If the opportunity arose, I would certainly go back and work with him. If not, I would have to look at other avenues. You never know.”