Football is awash with tales of wasted talent – young players with a glittering career ahead of them who become distracted by the trappings of fame. These players are often mavericks with prodigious skill, but the very personality that brings imagination, creativity and flair to their game can also be their downfall. Think Robin Friday, Lee Sharpe, or Peter Marinello. But in the case of Nathan Blake, it wasn’t his own attitude which saw him fail to realise his full potential; it was the way he was managed. I believe that Blake was a player ahead of his time.
Nathan Alexander Blake, the nephew of legendary Great Britain rugby league international, Clive Sullivan, was destined for a career in sport. He began his career as a youth player with Newport County before earning a trainee place at Chelsea. But Blake failed to make the same impression as his good friend Eddie Newton, and returned home to Newport in 1990. He was picked up by Cardiff City as a YTS player and soon made his first team debut at left-back. Baring a close physical resemblance, and a similar elegant style to Cardiff’s usual number 3, Ray Daniel, the travelling support at Bristol Rovers that day initially mistook the unknown young player for his team-mate. But it wouldn’t be long before Nathan Blake was established in the first team squad.
The young Blake was unusually versatile. He could play with both feet, and it seemed he could cope with any position in those first few years at Cardiff. We saw him all over the pitch, but it looked likely at the end of 1990 that he would become a central defender. He excelled in this role and I’ve no doubt that he could have had a successful career as a footballing centre back. But Blake was too much of a gem to be kept in defence. His raw talent could create goals out of nothing and his midfield prowling terrified opposition defences.
The emergence of Jason Perry and Damon Searle in 1991 meant that Blake was given a more central midfield role before he won Pat Heard’s place on the left. He was tactically undisciplined and the older heads in that side would cover as he roamed freely. He played 40 games that season as a 19 year old, and in 1992 his form improved dramatically with the arrival of his old Chelsea youth team-mate, Eddie Newton. City finished the season strongly with Blake on fire, and he took that form into the 1992/93 season when Cardiff won the Third Division Championship.
He was still more of a provider than a scorer of goals and created plenty for Carl Dale, Chris Pike, and then Phil Stant. Eddie May’s Cardiff lost only two games after Kevin Ratcliffe’s arrival in December and were worthy champions, with Blake starring as the team’s most exciting talent. He was quick, strong but above all he was mercurial. He had the pace and drive of a player like Laurie Cunningham with the footballing skills and vision of a Jason Koumas on top of his game.
It was about this time that I met Nathan on a pre-season club tour of Ireland. I was sharing a pub table with Damon Searle and Jason Perry when Blake joined us after an impressive stint singing Elvis Presley songs on the karaoke. He was confident, perhaps overly-so, and he asked me to name my favourite player, puffing his chest to accept my plaudits. I told him that it might have been him if he’d worked as hard as Jason and Damon. “Yeah” he said “pointing his finger in my chest, “but name one person at this club who can do the things I can!” He was right – there was nobody. Not just at the club, but in the Football League.
1994 proved a watershed for Nathan Blake. Injuries to Carl Dale and a dispute between Rick Wright and Phil Stant over promotion bonuses saw him pushed up front. He did very well in a struggling side, scoring 14 goals from 20 games. But he wasn’t a natural centre-forward, he was a partner to a target man in a twin attack. And when he scored the goal that launched his career, he was playing alongside big Garry Thompson.
The 4th round Cup Tie against Manchester City in 1994 was Cardiff’s biggest game in years. The match was live on television, a rarity for Cardiff, and Ninian Park was buzzing. In the 64th minute of an exciting game, Cohen Griffith took a throw in from the right. Receiving the ball on the edge of the box, Blake turned inside, feinted and curled a beautiful left-footed shot beyond Tony Coton in the Manchester City goal. He had created a work of art which would seal his future.
Controversially, Blake was sold to Premier League Sheffield United in the same week that Cardiff faced Luton in the 5th round of the Cup. Rick Wright needed the money, and the bargain £300,000 fee would become £500,000 if Blake helped the Blades avoid relegation. Some blamed the player for deserting but he had no choice. Bravely he went to that Luton game and stood amongst the City hardcore in the Canton Stand, assuring his iconic status among the support.
Still only 22, Blake had already played 131 games for Cardiff, scoring 35 goals from a variety of positions. And he did well for Sheffield United. His five Premier League goals didn’t manage to help them avoid relegation so City didn’t get the fee they deserved for their best player. Blake finished the next two seasons as top scorer at Bramall Lane, with an impressive 34 goals from 69 games.
But I noticed that his game had changed. The Sheffield United manager was Dave Bassett, a man known for his long-ball, physical direct style. Blake was bulked up and became a bullish, physical centre forward. It seemed that his increased muscular strength and the Blades’ playing style had seen him sacrifice the subtlety that had been such a beguiling part of his game at Cardiff. Blake became a regular number nine. He wasn’t what you would call a natural finisher, but he was great in the air. He scored regularly and earned himself a £1.2 million move to Bolton.
I hoped things would change for Blake away from Dave Bassett, but I was to be disappointed. He was relegated from the Premier League twice with Bolton, but did well in the Championship, scoring 38 times from just over a hundred games. And from there, while his goal to game ratio remained respectable at about one-in-three, he struggled to establish himself properly after a £4.2m move to Blackburn. His career petered out at Wolves, Leicester, then Leeds. Blake was relegated from the Premier League a record five times during a career hampered by injuries.
Blake’s international career never really took off. It was notable for a spat with Bobby Gould about a racist remark, and he refused to play under the Welsh manager for a time. When he did return in 1998, Gould took the Wales team to visit a prison in Gwent and Blake was accidentally locked up. It was of course, not the first time he had been in a cell. In 1999 he was arrested, and charged with threatening behaviour after an incident in Newport town centre while on international duty. Earlier in his career he had been accused of being involved with a break-in via the roof of an Amusement Arcade. This was found to be a case of mistaken identity, and he was cleared of both offences.
It may seem strange to say that Nathan Blake’s talent was misused when he had a long career in the Premier League and scored almost 150 goals. But I just think he could have been so much better had he been developed differently. This is just a personal view, and even Nathan may disagree, but I would have loved to have seen him playing in a modern 4-3-3 system as a wide attacking player. He would have perfectly suited the modern game and clubs would have been more careful with his fitness.
I really think he could have been a regular at one of the top Premier League teams and earned many more than 29 caps for his country. Blake’s heading ability and his physical strength defined a career that could have grown so much more if his skill had been nurtured and he had been allowed the freedom to play in a creative role.