Sheffield United: From Burkino Faso to Bury

Sense of perspective: Kevin Blackpool saw total      deprivation on his trip to Africa
Sense of perspective: Kevin Blackpool saw total deprivation on his trip to Africa

IT is bound to be emotional. But not even tonight’s League One fixture against a Sheffield United team he served for six years of his career will affect Kevin Blackwell quite as profoundly as a recent expedition to the poverty stricken state of Burkina Faso, writes James Shield.

Blackwell spent 25 months in managerial exile after parting company with Bramall Lane only three rounds into the 2010/11 season.

But rather than lounging at home licking wounds and bemoaning bad luck, the Bury manager used his time wisely, working on a variety of projects including a recent visit to west Africa on behalf of UK based charity Coaching for Hope.

“Perspective is a word that people use a lot these days,” Blackwell told The Star. “But I didn’t really understand its meaning until I went out there.

“I realised that, no matter how frustrated I was, no matter if I never got another job in the sport again, I was still a very lucky and fortunate man.

“We’d been asked to formulate a framework for coaches working at grassroots and local level. It was fascinating stuff but very humbling too.

“There was a hotel we got put up in that was the only five star one in town. It was five star because it was the only one where you could actually lock your room door.

“Some of the folk we came across had nothing. But even though they had nothing they wanted to treat us like kings.

“I remember watching Bob Geldof swearing into the television cameras when Live Aid happened. Now I know why he felt so angry and frustrated. Why he acted like he did.”

Burkina Faso, whose national team were beaten in Sunday’s AFCON final by Nigeria, is a country of combustible politics, diverse ethnicity and several distinct tongues.

But the language of football, as Blackwell discovered, is spoken by members of the Mossi, Fulani and Tuareg alike.

“Although we spent time in the capital Ouagadougou, we went to lots of villages and put on a session right out in the wilderness,” he said. “It really was in the middle of nowhere and like being on the Moon.

“But, as soon as we got a football out, people just appeared from nowhere. It was like ants swarming over the hillsides and I can remember thinking ‘where have they all come from?’

“There were youngsters who had walked for miles to take part. Some had even crossed the border from Mali because they’d heard what was going on.

“And, let me tell you, there were some really talented players. It was great to see so many folk just simply playing for the sheer enjoyment and love of it.

“But there were lots that, if they are given the right opportunities, could really go on to make a name for themselves.”

Blackwell’s trip, organised in tandem with the League Managers’ Association, also involved missions to an illegal goldmine, where parents in the surrounding area are being encouraged to send their children to school rather than work, and an under-resourced orphanage which needs a flat bed truck in order to become self-sufficient.

“I’d always wanted to do something worthwhile with a charity and so, when this opportunity came up, I was only too happy to oblige,” he continued. “What appealed to me about this one was that it involved going into areas where deprivation was rife.

“There are so many people in the world who complain about things and who wouldn’t get out of bed for £500 a week. Over there we came across people working long hours, risking their lives and who were lucky to get 50p a day.

“Some people with a lot of money, including some footballers, don’t have a clue. They ought to go out there and see what a different a few pounds can make.”

Bury were languishing at the bottom of the table when they offered Blackwell a route back into the game 19 weeks ago.

Twenty-two matches later they are 22nd but, as United will be acutely aware, only five points from safety following an impressive run of form culminating in last weekend’s draw with high-flying Brentford.

Danny Wilson’s side, who make the short journey to Greater Manchester on the back of a deserved victory over Shrewsbury Town, start as favourites by virtue of the fact they are placed fifth.

But Blackwell, assistant to former United chief Neil Warnock before returning to take sole charge in February 2008, boasts an enviable reputation for constructing tenacious, durable teams. Hence Wilson’s assertion yesterday that his players are taking nothing for granted en route to Gigg Lane.

Blackwell has cleared his in-tray since taking residence at Bury. Nevertheless, despite focusing solely on their bid for survival at present, he plans to return to Burkina Faso in the near future.

“I’ll definitely try and get back,” Blackwell said. “One of the lads in our party is taking some documents we’ve worked on over there very soon and I won’t forget some of the characters we met.”

*Kevin is helping Coaching for Hope raise £22,000 to buy the orphanage a truck. If you can help please contact jane.carter@coachingforhope.org or donate £5 by texting GOAL11 £5 to 70070.