Robbie Blake can sum up his career at Leeds United in two words: if only.
If only the 2005-06 season had not left the club with ground to make up on the Championship’s automatic promotion places. If only their players had turned up for the play-off final that same year. If only Leeds had shown the nerve to ward off relegation in 2007.
Blake’s relationship with Leeds was relatively short – two seasons, 87 appearances – but those days at Elland Road were defining for the club. From the cusp of the Premier League to the hard world of League One in 12 short months, they burdened the striker with many regrets.
United have regrets too. How different life would have been had Leeds made something of their appearance in the 2006 play-off final and rejoined the Premier League at the second time of asking, tapping into the sort of astronomical broadcast deal which Sky and BT Sport hatched between them this week. Nine years later, Leeds are still barred from the party.
“It’s like people tell you – football’s about fine margins,” Blake says. “One day you’re in the play-off final, right on the edge of everything good, and the next you’re in total freefall.
“The final went wrong and the club hasn’t recovered. Not really. That one game could have given Leeds everything – promotion, the Premier League, all the money clubs get. They’d be sitting in a far better position now. I know that and it’s quite hard to think about. One game can change a club for a lifetime. It has in this instance.”
Blake still maintains that Leeds might have avoided the play-offs in the 2005-06 season. The club spent heavily in preparation for it, a rare period when Ken Bates threw financial caution to the wind, and Blake’s move from Birmingham City in July 2005 cost £800,000.
It gave manager Kevin Blackwell a healthy range of goalscorers – Blake, David Healy, Rob Hulse and Richard Cresswell – but Leeds were left behind quickly by Reading and Sheffield United.
Leeds did latch on to Sheffield United after Christmas but lacked the legs to reel them in.
Blake played 47 times that season and chipped in with 11 goals.
“Leeds were one of those clubs I’d always wanted to play for,” he says. “I didn’t have to leave Birmingham but I knew Leeds were pushing on. They’d signed Cressie, Hulse, quite a few good players. It was a great time to go there.
“The first season was brilliant but I remember wishing the league had gone on for another five or 10 games.We’d have caught Sheffield United, I’m sure of that, but by the time it got close we’d already given ourselves too much to do. Then came the play-off final and we didn’t show up.”
That game at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium is one of Leeds’ most irredeemable days and Blake speaks of it in such terms. He came off the bench at half-time with United a goal down to Watford and well on the way to a 3-0 defeat.
What went wrong? “It’s hard to say,” Blake says, “but obviously nothing went right.
“I don’t know whether the tactics suited us. Out of the players on the bench, four of us were centre forwards. People were played out of position but I’m not solely blaming that. Was the preparation or the mentality good enough? I don’t know. We had a lot of good players.
“We always fancied ourselves because we had lads who could win games and a strong defensive set-up. We showed our bottle in the semi-finals. But in Cardiff we didn’t turn up – even though you have to admit that Watford were a good side, with a good manager at the time.”
Blake liked the cut of Blackwell’s jib when he first joined Leeds but by the following summer their relationship had broken down completely. The club in general were splitting apart and Blackwell survived in his job for a short while longer, replaced by caretaker John Carver and then Dennis Wise.
“For one reason or the other, I had a complete fall-out with Blackwell,” Blake says. “We never saw eye-to-eye after that and it was an uncomfortable situation.
“We had a meeting in pre-season where he basically said that in no circumstances was I going to play. I’d never play no matter what. Our form was shocking at the start of the season and I found that hard to accept.
“I don’t think it was about ability. We just didn’t get on. It was a personal thing. But I’ve seen Blackie since then and we’re fine. We’ve spoken, we’ve talked about it and that’s life. When I first arrived he couldn’t do enough for me and he made me feel so welcome. But after a while, the situation was different.
“The truth is I’ve got quite a few regrets about my time at Leeds. In my opinion I wasn’t able – or I wasn’t allowed – to show my true potential. When I was at Burnley I showed my potential. After Leeds, I went back to Burnley and did good things again.
“But it still makes me happy to be able to say I played for Leeds. I always think that if you played for Leeds, your career can’t have been too bad.”
Wise had time for Blake. He called the forward “our little diamond.” But for all the experience in the squad Wise inherited, Leeds were relegated from the Championship in April 2007 after a 1-1 draw at home to Ipswich Town, a game which was held up for 45 minutes by a pitch invasion. Blake moved back to Burnley soon after as Leeds cut their cloth.
“We had enough players and enough games when Dennis came in to stay up,” says Blake, who now works as a matchday pundit for Yorkshire Radio. “We shouldn’t have gone down.
“I was sitting in the dug-out when that pitch invasion happened. It was a horrible, horrible day – highlighted and magnified because of the club Leeds are.
“Relegation’s always going to taste really bitter but with Leeds you know the damage you’re doing. You know what a humiliation it is for a club who should never go through that. I was part of it and I don’t take that lightly. You’re sat there thinking ‘this is on us, this is down to us players.’ And it was.”