WITH Jamal Blackman in the building, Leeds United can take their leave of conversations about goalkeepers. A worry last season and the cause of much effort in this transfer window, that key position has been on the club’s mind for longer than anyone wanted.
Blackman was not first choice when the window opened but he fell into the category of keepers who Leeds would happily take. At 6’6”, and after a good year in the Championship with Sheffield United last season, the Chelsea loanee had the makings of the safe bet United have been craving for many months. It was, more than any other shortcoming, the glaring hole in their team.
There were challenges for Blackman at Bramall Lane – injuries, occasional errors, a red card at Brentford in March after a clash with Ryan Woods and periods where he played second fiddle to Simon Moore – but the 24-year-old finished his year in Sheffield comfortably in credit. Chris Wilder, Sheffield United’s manager, talked about negotiating a second loan but last month signed Dean Henderson from Manchester United instead.
At that time, Leeds were hanging on to the hope that Manchester City might farm out Angus Gunn again and looking into a deal to take David Stockdale from Birmingham City but when those options fell away, Blackman received the call. After a campaign in which Felix Wiedwald’s confidence crumbled completely, leaving Bailey Peacock-Farrell to see out the last 12 matches, Leeds needed a consistent presence between the posts.
Blackman has come to Elland Road as first choice, though he was careful not to be presumptuous about usurping the talented Peacock-Farrell.
“I don’t think so,” he said when asked if he considered himself to be top of Marcelo Bielsa’s pecking order. “There’s always that number one shirt which everyone’s trying to get. Obviously my aim is to try and be number one, and to stay number one, but there are other goalkeepers here as well.”
Peacock-Farrell, now 21, did his reputation no harm last season but Blackman, who has left Chelsea on loan for the fifth time, played in two thirds of Sheffield United’s Championship campaign. The Blades, with a very distinct style under Wilder, mixed with the top six for several months and topped the Championship after beating Leeds at Elland Road in late October. As the pace caught up with them, they dropped off around Easter and finished 10th.
“It was a great start for us,” Blackman said. “We played so well and we were unfortunate not to make it (into the play-offs). We weren’t too far off.
“That was the club’s first season in the Championship for a while and my first season in the Championship too. I think it helped that we were all in the same boat. I really loved it and there are bigger and better things ahead for them as well. It was great to get that chance.
“Playing games helps you. You learn new things, you make mistakes but then you learn from those mistakes. You do things well and try to keep doing things well. You’re always trying to improve and I’m still quite young as a goalkeeper but hopefully I’ll be able to take everything on from last season.”
Obviously my aim is to try and be number one, and to stay number one, but there are other goalkeepers here as well.Jamal Blackman
Blackman played twice against Leeds, the last line of defence as Sheffield United won 2-1 at both Elland Road and Bramall Lane. The derby in West Yorkshire was a full-blooded night game, played in front of 34,500. Blackman was beaten by a sweet volley from Kalvin Phillips but on an evening when Leeds were made to look second best, Billy Sharp and David Brooks silenced the crowd.
“I remember that Friday night,” Blackman said. “It was a massive game and everyone was up for it. The atmosphere going into it, it was like a den coming here. It’s a hard league, the Championship. It’s one of those leagues where you never know what the result will be. You always have to be concentrated and at your best. It’s a hard league to go into, so physical and constant.
“I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been at Chelsea for so long and been around them in the Premier League and the Champions League. I’ve also gone away myself, playing in Sweden and League Two. Playing in different divisions has helped me but the Championship is so competitive. There’s a lot that’s technical in the football but a lot of physical stuff as well.”
Chelsea gave Blackman a four-year contract last summer and see him as a potential first-team player. They were never open to permanent offers for him and his deal at Elland Road includes no option to buy. The completion of his move was merely held up by the drawn-out process of Chelsea sacking Antonio Conte last week.
The loan, all the same, has materialised in time for Blackman to play in all of Leeds’ pre-season friendlies, starting at Forest Green Rovers tonight.
“It helps coming into the team and getting to know everyone before you go into the season,” Blackman said. “You don’t want to go into those games not knowing about the players. You want to be able to learn about their strengths.
“We’d spoken to Sheffield (about another loan at Bramall Lane) but they wanted to see what their options were as well. With the World Cup going on, it was a bit up and down and no-one knew what was going on at Chelsea but it’s good to be able to get sorted out.”
Like Lewis Baker, the England Under-21 midfielder who joined Leeds from Chelsea last month, Blackman said the presence of Bielsa at Elland Road had been a factor in deciding which transfer to take up next. The keeper has built up experience steadily over the years, though loans at Wycombe Wanderers, Swedish club Ostersunds and latterly Sheffield United, and is buying into the faith among Leeds’ hierarchy that Bielsa’s tactical brain can fashion a path to the Premier League.
“It’s always in the back of your head, that you want to make promotion,” Blackman said. “You want to get to the Premier League and play on the big stages. That’s what everyone looks forward to.”