Obituary: Jackie Blanchflower
Friday 04 September 1998
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.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- 2 Rarest Beanie Baby of them all could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 3 Professional big game hunter Ian Gibson crushed to death by elephant during hunt
- 4 Farmer told to tear down mock-Tudor castle after hiding construction behind hay bales
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Game of Thrones season 5: Emilia Clarke praises characters who 'accept their femininity'
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Glastonbury 2015 tickets: How to make sure you’re successful in Sunday's re-sale
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate