The grand exit has certainly never eluded Ian Black in his career. Currently between clubs, the 32-year-old remains confident that the final exit is far in the distance, though. The scrapper of a midfielder is presently training with Salford City as he looks for a new posting following his release by Blackpool in May. That fact means, as it stands, his last senior game came at Wembley, in the play-off final won by the Lancashire club that hauled them back up to League One.
“There aren’t that many Scottish players that get to play at Wembley,” said the midfielder. “Fewer even that do and end their day climbing up the staircase and getting their hands on a trophy. I rather enjoyed that.”
As a last hurrah it had echoes of how the most successful stint across his 17-year career ended five years earlier: Black’s final game for Hearts the 5-1 filleting of Hibernian in the Scottish Cup final that allowed the player to climb the staircase to accept silverware as the man of that unforgettable match.
Only months later, Black earned his one and only full Scotland cap. He did so as a Third Division player with new club Rangers. His three years at an Ibrox club in constant turmoil sent his career on a downward spiral, not helped by his betting ban. The open and mannerly Black – arrestingly far removed from his football persona – sees it otherwise in reminding that he won two promotions and was part of a side that enjoyed an unbeaten league season. However, the fact is that his Rangers days have given way to two summers in the past three where he hasn’t been able to resettle himself immediately. He isn’t fretting, though.
“It might be tomorrow, the next day, or next week, but I’ll find a new club,” he said. “I’m not worried because I know I still have plenty to offer. I’ve been fit all my career, I train hard and have never put on an ounce of weight. I have loads of years left, and outside of the English Premier League, I could do a job at any level in Britain.
“I have someone doing bits and pieces for me and there has been interest, and I’ve spoken to a number of managers. The offers have just been at a lower level than what I’d consider.”
It is only “certain circumstances” that are making Black’s hunt a little more problematic than it might otherwise have been. His wife is from Preston and that is where he sees his family base for the foreseeable future, and where he wants to be able to travel from for his next footballing berth.
On being freed at the end of his three years with Rangers in the summer of 2015, he joined Shrewsbury Town.
A regular there for a year-and-a-half, during which he helped keep the club up when their third-tier status was seriously threatened, by the winter of last year he needed to cut ties.
“I was driving two-and-a-half hours to training, and two-and-a-half hours back home every day,” Black said. “It wasn’t practical, and with so much time in the car it wasn’t good for my football.”
Gary Bowyer at Blackpool got in touch and he pitched up there in February of this year. Only one start ensued, with a dozen appearances from the bench. “I came in when they were at the start of a run when they only lost one game in 14. I couldn’t expect to be given a starting place. You don’t change a team in that sort of form. I know I’d be annoyed if I dropped out for someone else if I was in the side. But I did my bit all the way through. We lost only one game I played in and I helped the team become winners in the last half hour at Wembley.”
The blunt truth is that it can appear as if Black’s reputation takes on the properties of his name. Reflecting on the high of his “happiest times” that came at Hearts, he admits to bitterness about the perception of him, feeling he was smeared by an unnamed person when he parted with Rangers. Previously he has spoken of how the security he felt under Ally McCoist and Kenny McDowall wasn’t there when Stuart McCall took over in early 2015.
“I think I know who was sticking the knife in; in fact I don’t think, I know for definite. But I will keep that to myself,” said Black, who has bemoaned that this person wouldn’t confront him face-to-face. “You ask Gary Bowyer what he thinks of me as a professional. You ask any number of managers I have worked with. I enjoy my football and winning. And I’ll do everything I can to give value for the wage I’m paid. I never take that lightly.”
The issue for some is that Black has been willing to do all too much when he crosses the white line. He makes no apology for that, but is dismayed that people can’t see the man behind the footballer.
“I will do whatever it takes to help my team win. Whatever it takes. If that requires me to be horrible, then I’ll be horrible. And when the final whistle sounds, all that ends. I will have a laugh, a joke with any opponent, and have time for every supporter. That’s the way I was brought up. I always get people who meet me expressing their surprise that I’m not that guy they think they know. I was raised to be polite and considerate. The football field is a different arena. I wear my heart on my sleeve.”
Rules apply there too, though, and Black didn’t follow them when it came to gambling. In September 2013 he was handed a three-game suspension by the SFA and fined £7,500 as a result of betting on 160 matches across a seven-year period, three of these wagers against the team he was then playing for.
“What I did was a wrong; what I did was a mistake. It seemed as if I was made out as the first player to do what I did. But we all know there were players then doing the same thing, there are players now doing it, and there will be players in the future who will do it. I came through that, pulled on the Rangers jersey again, and did my bit that season. If I had been at a small club I wouldn’t have been scrutinised the same way, but the important thing is how you handle difficult situations. I had many at Rangers and, as with this one, I learned and I continue to learn each and every day.”
Black is learning the value of patience right now. As much as he misses putting his heart and soul into winning games and being in an around a squad on matchdays, there have been compensations for someone who grew up with a love of Manchester United.
“I have three season tickets for Old Trafford so can get to home games there now,” he said. “And on other weekends I can go and watch Preston because I have a few pals who play for them.”
And during the week, a little slice of the Manchester United glitz might come to him. Salford City, where he trains, was immortalised in a BBC documentary series because its owners are Old Trafford “class of ‘92” major figures Phil and Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs.
“They do pop in. My first week’s training, Paul Scholes just turned up to watch training, and for a chat and catch up. There will be at least one of them at every home game.”
Making his football home Salford – who operate at the sixth tier of the English game – or going on trial elsewhere to speed up his permanent return to the senior football, are not for Black.
“If I played as a trialist it could really bring me problems if I picked up an injury. I should have no need to go on trial anywhere. I can stand on my CV that shows I have won trophies or achieved targets anywhere I have been. Salford is a great club and the people involved show the real ambition but it isn’t there yet. It has a great story that has still to be written.” Black might feel his story deserves to be rewritten.