Obituary: Danny Blanchflower

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:53

Robert Dennis Blanchflower, footballer and journalist: born Belfast 10 February 1926; played for Glentoran 1945-49, Barnsley 1949-51, Aston Villa 1951-54, Tottenham Hotspur 1954-64; capped 56 times for Northern Ireland 1949-62; Manager, Northern Ireland 1976-79, Chelsea 1978-79; died Cobham, Surrey 9 December 1993.

IF THE 20TH century is going to throw up a more original, eloquent, free-thinking football man than Danny Blanchflower, then it has little time to lose. The intellectual Ulsterman played the game as inspiringly as he spoke about it, making him a priceless asset in a field not noted for such heady combinations.

Blanchflower left an indelible mark on the history of British football with his often innovative captaincy of Tottenham Hotspur in 1960-61, the season in which the north London club became the first since Victorian times to achieve the coveted League and FA Cup double. It was a fittingly glorious zenith to a remarkable career.

For all his excellence, Blanchflower was not a spectacular footballer, more a subtle, all-pervasive influence from his position of right- half (a 'midfielder' in modern parlance). In his prime, between 1957 and 1962, he was one of the most creative players in the game, capable of dictating the tempo of a match like few others.

Neither quick nor muscular, though endowed with a wiry strength, Blanchflower had an instinct for slipping into space at crucial moments. Having seized the initiative while less thoughtful performers milled around unproductively, he would impose his presence with his remarkable passing skills. One moment Blanchflower was shackled, the next free and bellowing for possession; then, an instant later, the ball was nestling in the opponents' net, deposited there by Jimmy Greaves, Bobby Smith or Cliff Jones, but all courtesy of their skipper's exquisite vision.

Though his mother played for a local ladies' team, the Belfast-born Blanchflower did not hail from a sporting family. But he fell in love with football at an early age, excelled at junior level and in 1945 signed for a leading Irish side, Glentoran. Four years later he crossed the water to sign for Barnsley, and before long was celebrating his first full international cap. Blanchflower did well for his new club and attracted the attention of the more fashionable Aston Villa, whom he joined in 1951. At the age of 25, and maturing into a very fine player, he seemed ready-made for stardom. But before long he became disenchanted with the unimaginative, inflexible tactics employed at Villa Park and, in typically outspoken manner, made his feelings known. Come 1954, he seemed set to break the British transfer record with a pounds 40,000 move to Arsenal. But Arsenal appeared to get cold feet over the fee and instead Blanchflower joined Tottenham Hotspur for pounds 30,000. It was the turning- point of his professional life.

At White Hart Lane he was managed by Arthur Rowe, whose exhilarating 'push-and-run' Spurs side of the early 1950s was in need of rebuilding. Together the two men set about the task of creating a team in a traditionally stylish Tottenham mould, but the partnership was split when illness precipitated Rowe's retirement in 1955. The new Spurs manager, Jimmy Anderson, though he made Blanchflower his captain, was not on the same wavelength and the pair clashed after Blanchflower made tactical changes during an FA Cup semi-final and the side lost. The fact that similar enterprise had paid dividends before was overlooked.

However, despite being deprived of the captaincy, Blanchflower grew ever more influential and in 1957-58 completed what was arguably his most brilliant individual campaign, which he climaxed by leading Northern Ireland to the last eight of the World Cup. Deservedly, he was named Footballer of the Year (an accolade repeated in 1961).

Yet still Spurs were not winning trophies and their new manager, Bill Nicholson, dropped Blanchflower, whom he described as being invaluable in a good side but a luxury in a bad one because of his inadequate defensive input. By now Blanchflower was 33 and the end might have been imminent, but the astute Nicholson had none of it. He turned down a transfer request and reinstalled his elder statesman as captain - to fabulous effect.

With wonderful new players, such as the Scots Dave Mackay and John White, added to the team, Spurs improved markedly during the following term, the prelude to the all-conquering exploits of 1960- 61. In 1961-62 they let the League slip away to the unfancied Ipswich Town, but retained the Cup, then became the first British team to claim a European trophy, lifting the Cup Winners' Cup in 1963.

By this time, Blanchflower was at the veteran stage, often playing through the pain of a debilitating knee injury, but his overall contribution seemed ever more important. By now he was taking an increasingly prominent role in training and as liaison between manager and players. When a combination of injury and age (he was 38) forced him to quit in 1964, Tottenham lost a guiding light.

Many, including Nicholson himself, reckoned that Blanchflower would be ideal as Spurs' next manager, and when Nicholson stepped aside in 1974 he recommended Blanchflower as his successor. But the board of directors, presumably cringing at the prospect of appointing such a forthright character, refused the advice and Blanchflower continued the successful journalistic career - he wrote an incisive column for the Sunday Express, frequently railing in articulate fashion against what he saw as unjust authority - that he had begun after hanging up his boots.

In fact, Blanchflower did sample management later, taking charge of Northern Ireland and briefly running a poor Chelsea team at the end of the Seventies. By then, perhaps, he had been absent from day-to-day involvement in football for too long and the results were poor; in any case, he professed himself disillusioned with values in the modern game.

Blanchflower - whose brother Jackie played for Manchester United until he was seriously injured in the Munich air crash in 1958 - continued with the Sunday Express until 1988. After that his slide into infirmity grieved all who had known him as a superb player, canny tactician, incurable romantic and maverick sage, a magnetic personality who dominated any room into which he walked.

True, he was never 'one of the lads', preferring to go his own way, as on the day he dismissed Eamonn Andrews by refusing, on live television, to take part in the This is Your Life programme. Indeed, there were times when his undeniable ego upset people around him. But every successful man must know his own worth - and Danny Blanchflower's was immense.

(Photograph omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments