To hear of his death yesterday after a long struggle against the debilitating effects of an illness that was an affront to his intelligence and imagination, was to be reminded of the marvellous contribution he made to the emancipation of the professional footballer.
There was widespread shock more than a quarter of a century ago when Blanchflower defied the directors of Tottenham who, in the attitude of the time, supported the theory that footballers, no matter what their status, should be seen and not heard.
It was an age of injustice in football; a pounds 20 per week maximum wage and the iniquitous retain and transfer system. In the eyes of his employers Blanchflower had committed the unpardonable sin of writing for a national newspaper; not ghosted garbage but, as befitted a scholar who frequently spoke about the joy of attending St Andrews University, all his own work, stylish and indicative of a superior mind.
As a result he was summoned to appear before men who were steadfastly opposed to the principle of free speech, especially when advocated by an uppity Ulsterman. Blanchflower's response was approximately a coarse alternative to saying that the Tottenham directors had the option of quickly leaving his presence. In spite of subsequent triumphs he was never forgiven.
The triumphs were many. By the time Bill Nicholson brought together the team who became the first in modern times to win the Double of League Championship and FA Cup, Blanchflower was already 35. The autumn of his career was enriched by the alliance he forged with Dave Mackay and the late John White, and made comfortable by the team's brilliant outrider, Cliff Jones.
In many respects Blanchflower was a loner. Socialising didn't suit him. He fled from an appearance on This is Your Life, saying, 'Nobody asked me'.
Asked to describe the difference after joining Tottenham from Aston Villa in 1954, he said, 'At Tottenham the players are encouraged to pass the ball to each other'. When being presented to the Duke of Edinburgh before the 1961 FA Cup final he was asked to explain why Tottenham, unlike Leicester City, were not identified by names on their tracksuits. 'We know each other,' he smiled. On their way to taking the Cup-Winners' Cup in 1963, the first success by a British team in European competition, Tottenham might have gone down to an irretrievable defeat in Bratislava but for the brilliance and courage of their Scottish international goalkeeper, Bill Brown.
With the pressure increasing and Tottenham 2-0 down, Nicholson dispatched Blanchflower, who was unable to play, with instructions. 'Bill sent me down to encourage them,' he said, 'so I told Browny about the nightclub in the basement of our hotel.'
The final itself, against Atletico Madrid in Rotterdam, saw Tottenham without Mackay, their great driving force. In his team talk Nicholson made much of the opposition's strengths. Sensing a pessimistic mood, Blanchflower spoke up. 'Listen, you think they've got quick players. Well. Cliff Jones can catch pigeons. They've got hard players? When Maurice Norman (the tall, powerful centre-half) takes his teeth out he frightens the life out of me. Jimmy Greaves invents ways of scoring goals.' Nicholson told the team that they were on a generous bonus. Blanchflower wanted to discuss it. 'Don't you think it's enough?' Nicholson complained. 'It's fine,' Blanchflower said, 'but I'd like to discuss it.' Intelligently led by Blanchflower, who was only half fit, Tottenham won 5-1.
Liberated spirits deserve better than the bleakness that invaded Blanchflower's middle age. But nobody who saw him play or enjoyed the privilege of his company will forget what he was. A great player, a romantic. A disciple of the glory game.