If you have followed English football over the past 20 years, the chances are you will have heard of Lilleshall.
The FA National School was established at the Shropshire country estate in 1984 and for 15 years, until its closure in 1999, provided schooling and coaching to the most talented footballers in the country between the ages of 14 and 16.
During its nineties heyday, Lilleshall was home to many future England internationals, including Sol Campbell, Nick Barmby, Andy Cole, Wes Brown, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher, Joe Cole, Scott Parker and Jermain Defoe.
For many of them, the central figure in the coaching they received was Keith Blunt, who passed away in August this year, aged 77.
Blunt had previously coached Tottenham’s youth team, as well as the first teams of Malmo and Viking Stavanger, in Sweden and Norway, and brought a wealth of footballing experience to the role. Soon after receiving news of his death, his former players and clubs offered their condolences on social media, including Carragher, who paid tribute to Blunt with an Instagram post showing the pair in a school photo from their time at Lilleshall.
Carragher, who arrived at the school as a 14-year-old in 1992, went on to win 38 senior international caps and make over 700 first-team appearances for Liverpool. The European Cup winner was one of the success stories of the Lilleshall era, and is keen to tell us how Blunt gained the respect of the young players under his tutelage and helped to shape their football careers.
“We’d all come from our own clubs, with different ways of playing, different influences, but we all came together under Keith Blunt at the national school, and he was a very tough taskmaster,” Carragher recalls.
“He was central to the football side of things at Lilleshall. We had the principal, who was like the headmaster of the house, but Keith was the one who called the shots football-wise. You see football teams now and they have two or three different coaches but this was just one man with 32 lads – and they’re the best players in the country.
“You have to control them, teach them, improve them as players – which is what he did. It’s only now that you realise and you understand what goes into it and how difficult that must have been.
“I think he actually said to the parents before we started – because we were 14 at the time – that we may not like him, but we’d respect him when we’d finished. As in, over the two-year period, we’d look back and go, ‘Yep, that was good.’
“And it was. It was brilliant. He was a character you wanted to keep on the good side of, but he had very firm, strong beliefs on how the game should be played. He wasn’t too enamoured with Fancy Dans and people playing for themselves. It was all about the team and how we played.”
— Danny Webber (@DanielWebber81) August 13, 2016
Jody Morris joined the school a year after Carragher as a highly talented young midfielder, and credits Blunt with helping him to hone his game, both technically and – crucially – mentally. Before arriving at Lilleshall, Morris had never thought anything of his tendency to put in robust challenges on the bigger boys. He was just letting them know he was there, ready to ‘mix it’. But Blunt quickly let him know that he was only creating problems for himself by getting involved in that side of the game.
“There were quite a few things that he made no bones about needing to stamp out of my game,” admits the former Chelsea midfielder. “He knew that I liked to play and pass, but also that I didn’t mind mixing it, even though I was only a littl’un, and that would sometimes involve naughty challenges and going in recklessly at times.
“He would say he needed to rely on me and if I was throwing out reckless challenges, that wasn’t me being tough or standing up to the physical challenge, that was just stupid. He would say that was just the easy way out, and that the top players can always remain in control.
“I think, because he saw that I could understand the game and was a decent leader, he would probably give me more responsibility and expect more of me. So he was certainly hard on me at times, but when you did get praise off him, you knew you had done something really well to earn it.
“In terms of understanding the game, he was great in helping me to learn what was needed to control the game from midfield and organise the players around you.”
Just listened to the inductees to FA Coaching Hall of Fame and Keith Blunt. Wow, what a man, what a career. Could listen to him all night.
— Nick Levett (@nlevett) December 4, 2014
Both Carragher and Morris remember Blunt coaching his teams to play an up-tempo, attacking game, but with a typically English edge.
“I wouldn’t say Keith Blunt was someone who wanted to have 25 passes around the back, there was none of that,” Carragher explains. “He wanted to get the ball forward, but with quality.
“I was a centre-forward at the time, would you believe, and the big thing was getting the ball into the frontman. Now, I’m not talking about knocking it up to his head to flick on, but getting it to him with quality, into his feet, and you play from there. It was sort of direct, but good football, if that makes sense.”
“For team play he was first class,” adds Morris, who now coaches Chelsea’s Under-18s. “He was massive on pressing from midfield, like Don Howe, who he got in a couple of times, and we would get the videos out and look at AC Milan’s pressing from the eighties and early nineties as well.
“He very much liked his midfielders to be pressing and hard-working, yet then not give the ball away. So he was perfect for me, as a midfielder, but the mentality side of the game was something he was huge on, especially remaining calm in pressure situations.”
Blunt’s advice was backed by decades of experience at various levels of the game, at home and abroad. After a playing career in non-league football ended, he took up a regional coaching role with the Football Association, before becoming assistant manager to former England goalkeeper Tony Walters at Plymouth Argyle between 1972 and 1977. The pair achieved promotion from the Third Division, with a side that included Paul Mariner, and when Walters’ tenure came to an end, Blunt was in a good position to take on the manager’s role at Sutton United, where he won the Anglo-Italian Cup in 1979.
Bilder ifrån MFF-Bladet på Keith Blunt och Bob under den tid det begav sig. pic.twitter.com/C4SUk39Xff
— Per-Olof Andersson (@mffpo67) August 13, 2016
That success provided the springboard for a move back to the upper echelons of the game, and that summer Bobby Houghton made Blunt his assistant at Malmo, shortly after they had lost the European Cup final to Nottingham Forest. He eventually succeeded Houghton as manager, leading Malmo to second, fifth and fourth-place finishes at a time when Sven-Goran Eriksson and Roy Hodgson were also coaching in Sweden.
A brief stint at Viking Stavanger followed in 1984/85, during which time his goalkeeper was Erik Thorstvedt, and Blunt recommended the big Norwegian to his next employers, Tottenham, who appointed him youth-team coach in 1987.
He had one more position in the senior game, as assistant manager to Keith Burkinshaw at Gillingham, but things didn’t work out for them at the Kent club and it was then that Blunt returned to youth football as national coach and director of the FA’s National School.
After the closure of Lilleshall in 1999, Blunt set off to China, again at the recommendation of his old friend Houghton, where he worked with various youth age groups for the national team setup in the early 2000s. His career’s work earned him a place in the FA’s Coaching Hall of Fame in 2014 – an honour that was presented to him by his former pupil, Jamie Carragher.
— The FA (@FA) August 15, 2016
“He was maybe what people might class as an old-fashioned-type ‘football man’,” says Carragher. “Straight, wanted his players to respect him. How he’d deal with today’s players is a different matter, really. I can only imagine, with some of the antics of certain players now. But he always wanted you to respect him, to look smart, play properly.
“You didn’t want to let him down. If he was disappointed in you, you were disappointed in yourself. You wanted to play well for him. If you were in his good books, it felt good, because it wasn’t easy to get in the good books of Mr Blunt.”
Morris shares that view, adding that those two years at Lilleshall were more than just a stepping stone on the way to becoming a senior professional.
“There is no way I would have made my first-team debut just after my 17th birthday if I hadn’t had my two years with Keith Blunt helping to prepare me,” the former England Under-21s player concludes.
“I was certainly prepared for what was in store for me in professional football by my two years with Blunty. I couldn’t speak highly enough of the man. He was great for me as an individual, but as far as understanding the team side of football went, and raising young men, we looked up to him. You always wanted to impress Blunty.”