Obituary: Jackie Blanchflower

JACKIE BLANCHFLOWER was not quite 25 and approaching his footballing prime. Already he had been showered with bouquets as one of Manchester United's vibrantly successful Busby Babes and was firmly established as a Northern Ireland international. With the Red Devils seemingly poised for limitless conquests, the future beckoned alluringly for the versatile younger brother of Danny, the famous captain of Tottenham Hotspur.

But tragedy intervened when United's plane crashed at Munich on the way home from a European tie in Belgrade in February 1958. Eight players and 15 other passengers lost their lives; Blanchflower lost his livelihood and, for many years, his peace of mind.

After the accident on the snowy German runway he received the last rites, but he survived. However the hitherto vigorous young athlete was a physical wreck - he suffered a fractured pelvis, a complete set of broken arms and legs, shattered ribs and severe kidney damage - and even when the bodily devastation began gradually to be repaired, the mental scars remained vivid.

For three traumatic years he was consumed with bitterness, railing against his reversal of fortune and did precisely nothing. Even after that, as he tried to reshape his future outside football, there were more blows in store and only much later in life did the eloquent Irishman regain contentment, earning renown as an entertaining raconteur and drolly hilarious after-dinner speaker.

Jackie Blanchflower had followed Danny over the Irish Sea in 1949, leaving his native Belfast as a precociously talented 16-year-old to sign on at Old Trafford. Skilful, intelligent and industrious, though a little short of pace, he made rapid strides through United's junior teams and made his senior debut at right-half in 1951. But it was as an inside-forward that he attained a regular place in 1953/54, the season in which he won his first full international cap.

Emerging as both a creator and scorer of goals, he netted 24 times over two campaigns and was rewarded with a Championship medal in 1955/56. However, following an accomplished defensive stint for his country and with increasingly brisk competition for inside-forward berths - the likes of Dennis Viollet, Liam Whelan, John Doherty and the exciting young Bobby Charlton were all in contention - Blanchflower was converted into a centre-half during 1956/57.

Thereafter he vied for the No 5 shirt with Mark Jones, an immensely tough stopper in the traditional mould who contrasted nicely with the more subtle Irishman. In this new role Blanchflower played in the 1957 FA Cup Final against Aston Villa, but spent most of the match as an emergency goalkeeper after regular custodian Ray Wood was injured, substitutes not being allowed in those days.

As a magnificent all-round sportsman, he surprised no one by excelling between the Wembley posts but was unable to prevent the two goals which stopped United becoming the first club this century to complete the League and FA Cup double. Come the ill-fated expedition to Belgrade, Jones was back in the side and Blanchflower travelled merely as a reserve, being declared fit to do so only at the last moment. Clearly, though, there was no doubt that he remained an integral part of Matt Busby's ambitious long-term plans.

At first, after Munich, there were hopes that he would recover well enough to resume his career and he remained on United's books until June 1959. But the injuries proved insuperable and the devastated Ulsterman faced a grim outlook.

Understandably enough he felt the world was against him as a succession of occupations, all in the Manchester area, brought frustration. He ran a sweetshop - and a supermarket opened around the corner; he did a stint with a bookmaker and horse-racing was so hard hit by cruel winter weather that he lost the job; he took on a pub - and two weeks later the breathalyser was introduced; then he became a printer only to be made redundant in 1976.

After that he studied to become an accountant but that brought no change of luck as positions as finance officer for a youth association and as a company accountant ended in lay-off.

Happily a turning point was to arrive, courtesy of his wife, Jean. During the 1950s she had been a successful club vocalist with the Vic Lewis Big Band and three decades later she took to performing again. Blanchflower, who had been blessed with liberal quantities of self- deprecating charm, began introducing her to audiences before her shows and found that both he and the punters enjoyed his unrehearsed patter.

As a result husband and wife became a double act from which public platform Jackie moved on to the after-dinner speaking circuit, rapidly finding himself in such demand that he had to relinquish another accountancy post.

Before an engagement not far from his Stalybridge, Cheshire, home in the mid-1990s he reflected: "Life has been full of ups and downs, but without pathos there can be no comedy. The bitterness goes eventually and you start remembering the good times. I loved it at United. From this distance, even going through the accident was worth it for those years at Old Trafford." He added softly: "I feel happy and at ease now." All who knew Jackie Blanchflower during his dark days in the wake of Munich will give thanks for that.

Only two weeks ago, he was able to attend the testimonial Munich match; it was an emotional night.

John Blanchflower, footballer; born Belfast 7 March 1933; played for Manchester United 1949-58; capped 12 times by Northern Ireland 1954-58; married (one son, two daughters); died Manchester 2 September 1998.

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