Danny Blanchflower

Author Martin Cloake, with an extract from his book, accompanied by an exclusive illustration by artist Lilly Allen for The  Substantive.

The legend of a great footballer inevitably tends to fade with the passing of the years. The legend of Danny Blanchflower continues not only to shine brightly, but to illuminate aspects of a modern game which is perhaps more convinced of its own importance than it should be. Blanchflower was in his prime 50 years ago. That’s before most people had a television. He died in 1993. That’s before most people had broadband internet. And yet despite existing in a less connected world he was one of the first football superstars of the modern age, one of the first to become a star entertainer in the public’s mind rather than simply someone who was very good at what was, despite being watched by masses, still a minority interest. What made him not only a great player in his day, but a legend in a much-changed world over half a century later?

Much of Blanchflower’s continuing allure is because he was a thinker as well a player. He was a thinker at a time when thinking was not viewed with suspicion, although what he thought often landed him in hot water. Today, for all the power and influence footballers at the top of the modern, all-encompassing game have, few if any use it with the effect Blanchflower did – although he famously had his moment when it came to the privacy debate, gaining notoriety as the first man to refuse Eamonn Andrews’ invitation to go on This Is Your Life. Even here, he made his mark, ensuring that the show was never again filmed live. His interest was that of the craftsman, seeking knowledge of what he once told a journalist was “the game within the game” and in so doing getting to its very heart and soul.

Blanchflower was a clever man, but he recognised the simple pleasures of football and much of his intellectual application was dedicated to debunking the efforts of those who would make it overcomplicated. It was probably why his post-playing career as a TV pundit never really took off. One of the many delightful stories about Blanchflower tells of how, asked “who do you think will win this game?” before a match kicked off, he answered “I don’t know, that’s why they’re playing the match”. Blanchflower was a thinker, a talker, a writer. He was, in the words of sports journalist and long-time admirer Julie Welch “football’s stylish song-and-dance man, playing the game the way Gene Kelly danced”. And let’s not forget that point, because for all that can justifiably be said about Blanchflower the thinker and personality, he was without a doubt one of the finest footballers to grace the turf.

But allied to Blanchflower’s mastery of his craft and his understanding of space was an exceptional leadership ability. He had the ability to take Bill Nicholson’s ideas onto the pitch and see they were implemented, and he had the confidence and the authority to change them if necessary. That led to some clashes but, overall, Nicholson trusted his captain. The two men were football craftsmen at the peak of their powers and they combined to create pure gold.

Tottenham was a place where football was not only played, it was where new ideas were incubated, where the game was thought about and tested and refined. And it was where, arguably for the first time in England, a group of football craftsmen began to fuse the virtues of victory and style. All this in an ambitious age in which striving for new heights infused the atmosphere. Into the middle of this came Danny Blanchflower.

Julie Welch observes that “you can see what a spark that quick-fire intelligence and independent, adventurous mind must have lit at White Hart Lane.” It is only when you understand this potent mix of circumstance and how it combined with Blanchflower’s own grasp of the game’s intricacies, together with his drive to achieve that special something that would leave a lasting impression, that you can begin to understand why Blanchflower still stands so tall.

While Blanchflower’s cerebral style may not have been to everyone’s taste, and his decision to keep his distance off the field – “You can’t lead from the middle of the pack,” he once observed – the players respected him. “He could certainly talk,” laughs Cliff Jones, remembering his former captain today. “He was a lovely person to have around. He was a bit distanced from the players because he didn’t smoke or drink, but we were all comfortable with that and it helped establish his authority.

“When we went out on the field of play, Danny Blanchflower took over. If it didn’t work out, he and Bill [Nicholson] would have words. But there’d be a handshake at the end. He was not just a great player but a great captain.”

His final game for Tottenham Hotspur was on 9 November 1963 in the League against Manchester United. He had a poor game and Spurs lost 4-1. It was the end. Blanchflower quoted F Scott Fitzgerald, comparing his retirement to “the blow that comes from within – that you don’t feel… until you realise that in some regard you will never be as good a man again”. It’s a sentiment echoed by Ossie Ardiles, who told me when I interviewed him in 2008 “to play football is the best thing in life”. Blanchflower was stoical, saying “I have had as good a career as anyone else and I have never had false illusions about immortality.”

While many expected Blanchflower to go into management, he went into journalism instead, writing for national newspapers and appearing on TV. One colleague said: “He wrote the way he played, he liked flair, he was always stylish.” It’s perhaps no surprise to hear that he ruffled as many feathers in his new trade as he did in his old. His refusal to talk up a game if it didn’t deserve it did little to endear him to TV producers. He wouldn’t have lasted five minutes on Sky. He once said of other sports writers: “They are seduced by their own medium. It is one of black and white and it does not lend itself to subtler shades of opinion.”

As Dave Bowler concluded in 1997 in his magnificent biography of Blanchflower, “It’s a poor, soulless game that can only measure itself in league tables and trophies. It’s a worse one that measures itself in money. A game without joy, without hope, without ideals is bankrupt, morally and spiritually. British football needs a Danny Blanchflower, now more than ever.”

Martin Cloake

This profile is an extract from Martin Cloake’s eshot, Danny Blanchflower. Martin’s blog is at blog.martincloake.com The illustration at the top of this piece is an exclusive for The Substantive by the artist Lilly Allen. Her blog is here.

With echoes of Glory from Danny Blanchflower to Bruce Springsteen, and full of the flavour of Escape European Travel brings, The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ tells the tales of a journey as Spurs returned to the European Cup for the first time in 49 seasons. It is available for preview and to download from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.