Sport: Sadness in a voice stilled

Click to follow
THE death of Danny Blanchflower on Thursday created such a wave of sentimental eulogies that younger devotees of football must have been taken aback. He'd scarcely been heard of for a dozen years or more and suddenly the air is pierced with anguish at his going.

In fact, Danny hadn't been a force in the game for so long you would have to be over 40 fully to appreciate the reason he is being loudly mourned. His death has finally released feelings pent up over the years during which he has been slowly slipping from us, dragged down by failing physical health and the long onset of the Alzheimer's Disease that eventually caused his death.

Besides, we're going through a boom time for anguish in British football. Notwithstanding the quality of Norwich City's performance against Inter Milan on Wednesday, our game is full of grief. No representation in next year's World Cup . . . wiped out of European competition . . . the messy departure of the England manager Graham Taylor . . . the rummaging around in empty drawers for a decent replacement . . . the FA leadership crisis . . . chaos on the coaching front.

Blanchflower's views on any or all of those would have brought a valuable perspective and it is at times like these the loss of a great presence is more keenly felt. The recent death of Bobby Moore was another that hit the game hard because he had not been permitted to continue his contribution once his great playing career had finished. Neither did Brian Clough's retirement this year encourage anyone to doubt that football's ration of the right philosophy has been further reduced.

Our game's traditional inability to find the right setting for the great personalities and creative thinkers is depressing enough without these continuing reminders of what we have been missing over the years.

NOT that Blanchflower was ever easy to accommodate, but there was rarely a time in his long service to the game when he didn't have far more to give than those in power were prepared to receive. The saddest example of that occurred in 1974 when it seemed that a dream situation had been contrived to allow him the opportunity to contribute as much to Tottenham Hotspur as a manager as he had as right-half and captain during the glories of the early 1960s.

Bill Nicholson, who managed Spurs through those prime years, wanted to step down and worked out a formula which he believed would carry on the good work. It involved the appointment of Blanchflower as manager, the signing of Johnny Giles as player- coach and the retention of Nicholson in an elder statesman role.

Blanchflower, a press box habitue on behalf of the Sunday Express in those days, was a bad keeper of a secret and a few of us were aware of the possibility and genuinely excited by it. On the day the Spurs board met to consider the matter, Blanchflower repaired to Wentworth Golf Club, where he used to play a mean game for generous money, to await the call.

He was accompanied by my Independent colleague Ken Jones, then working for a tabloid, who recalls that Danny was wondering whether a Jaguar would be a suitable car for the Spurs manager. The phone rang many times that evening but it was only me and others, who were sniffing after the story. There was nothing from White Hart Lane.

The call that never came was probably the saddest moment of his career. In deciding against the Nicholson package, the Spurs directors not only robbed the club of a potentially exciting decade but took from the game an influential figure at a time when it could have used one.

An opportunity came four years later when Blanchflower was appointed manager of Chelsea but the game had galloped on and it was neither the time nor the place. He left after nine months, complaining that the younger players, who were by then earning more money than he had ever seen as a player, couldn't relate to him. 'They are entitled to their own values - but why should I have to change mine?' he said.

BLANCHFLOWER was not an archetypal player of his time. From a humble upbringing in Belfast, he studied at St Andrew's University and was a RAF navigator at the end of the war before he began playing for Glentoran as a cultured wing-half who did not believe in perpetual motion. Barnsley brought him to England in 1949 and he later joined Aston Villa, where his tactical innovation was not appreciated.

What also set him apart was that although he swore like a trooper he never took a drink in his life, nor puffed a fag. He did fall in love a lot, however, and was married three times.

I once propounded the theory that the fear of relegation was the main enemy of football and drew up a League format that would do away with it - it is still available under plain wrapper. He gave me a bad time. 'Relegation is the devil of the game,' he argued. 'And if you did away with the devil, life would be pretty boring.'

He joined Spurs under the 'push and run' management of Arthur Rowe, but was well into his thirties before Nicholson built one of the great teams of the century. Blanchflower played a mammoth part in the achievements of that team as an on-field tactician and if his previous career suffers in comparison it is because he needed to be in a good team for his talents to be fully appreciated.

In a moderate team, he would tend to be a liability because half- backs in such teams had to run and tackle a damn sight harder than suited the aspirations of the cultured Blanchflower. But, first for Northern Ireland in the 1958 World Cup and then for the Spurs 'Double' team, he blossomed into everything you would want from a classic footballer.

Perhaps if he hadn't been so eloquently forthright, he might have prospered more within the game. He was very good on television, but only HTV in Wales gave him a real chance. Not unlike football, the main networks are not really interested in genuinely creative talent in the front line.

He went to the United States in the mid-1960s to commentate on their fledgling soccer league for CBS but his refusal to compromise on his views about football would not allow him to limit the number of times he referred to the performances as a load of crap.

One day football may have developed sufficiently to be able to assimilate a man good enough to play the way he likes, manage a team without interference and to make any comments about the game he feels are apt. We may even refer to it as giving a man Carte Blanchflower.