If tomorrow’s game really is the first of 11 cup finals, Jamal Blackman will be a happy man.
The on-loan goalkeeper, who has helped put Sheffield United in the hunt for a top six finish, spent the first part of his career studying serial trophy winners. So, as Chris Wilder’s side prepare for their visit to Ipswich Town, the Chelsea youngster is busy dusting down his notes.
“I grew up training with the likes of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Ashley Cole,” he says, “They have achieved so much in their careers. That is something I want to be able to do. To be able to say I’ve achieved that myself. So it would be great to be remembered for helping us, Sheffield United, reach the Premier League.”
The razor sharp tightrope between delight and despair is comfortable territory for Blackman. After all, he has spent over a decade balancing on it. Having progressed through Stamford Bridge’s youth system, where hundreds of youngsters compete for the life-changing prize of a professional contract, he helped the Londoner’s win the FA Youth Cup before travelling with their first team to the Champions League final in 2012. It was there, deep in the bowels of the Allianz Arena, Blackman watched the manic celebrations which followed a dramatic victory over Bayern Munich. That experience, combined with several visits to Wembley, taught him the sacrifices required to deliver success. Not to mention, observing Frank Lampard and Petr Cech go ballistic in Bavaria, the sheer joy it brings.
“Being with the Champions League winning squad was such a historic and unbelievable night,” Blackman admits, a huge smile spreading across his face. “Being a part of that and saying: ‘That could be me in a few years if I do the right thing and follow the right path’ is such a big drive. Remembering that is massive for me and I will always have in the back of my head to give me extra motivation.”
United enter this weekend’s contest ranked ninth in the Championship; three points behind the top six but having played a game less than many of their rivals. Which makes the trip to Portman Road a potentially pivotal moment in what could yet prove another historic campaign.
Blackman, aged 24, could make his 27th appearance of the season in Suffolk after recovering from a hip injury. Sitting in the Steelphalt Academy’s media suite, he is acutely aware of the fixture’s significance. But, rather than be cowed by the occasion, Blackman is excited, focused and inspired.
“We have talked about wanting to do well. It is a collective thing where we all want to do as well as possible.
“It is such a big club with a big history and all want to be a part of that and bring what we can to the table. Everyone here is in it together and that can be a really powerful thing. We all know what we want to do, where we want to get to and we’ll be giving everything we can to try and make that happen.
“I have travelled to a few cup finals with different managers before and been lucky enough to be a part of that. Seeing them win things, being so close to it, you want success even more. Yes, it makes you hungry.”
It was precisely that combination of experience and youthful exuberance which made Blackman one of United’s leading targets during last summer’s recruitment drive. Wilder, having achieved promotion at the first time of asking, was impressed by his performances during previous spells on loan with Middlesbrough and Wycombe Wanderers. But more importantly, after sifting through the records of a stint with Swedish club Ostersunds, his thirst for knowledge and strength of character; qualities Blackman confirmed after losing his place in the starting eleven over the Christmas period.
“There’s definitely a mental side and you have to grow up quickly. Going out on loan, you have to be able to get that number one shirt and maintain that. You need to be able to come in and straightaway show what you want to do. The other ‘keepers, Simon (Moore) and Jake (Eastwood) are great. Because we’ve all got different qualities, we all push and learn from each other.”