Danny Blanchflower, a man without equal

Where do you begin to describe a hero and an immortal because you can never hope to capture his true greatness.  He was, above all, a visionary and unique.  I have never seen anyone play like him or talk like him, elegant, eloquent and cerebral hardly do him justice but he was the brain, the architect and the artist of the great Tottenham side of the 1960-61 season.  Many footballers have left an indelible mark on the history of the game, most for their performances on the pitch, some for their managerial skills and others for tactical innovations.  Few have left their mark because of the man they were.  Danny Blanchflower is one of that select band. His time at Glentoran, Barnsley and Aston Villa will, I’m sure, be scrutinised in some future narrative but now I would like to remember this wonderful player by looking at his greatest season, that became known as the “Double” year of 1960-61.

Robert Dennis "Danny" Blanchflower was born on February 10th 1925 in the Bloomfield district of Belfast, the first of five children born to John and Selina Blanchflower.  His mother had played as a centre-forward on a women's football team. He was educated at Ravenscroft public elementary school and was awarded a scholarship to Belfast College of Technology.  He was ranked as the greatest player in Spurs history by The Times in 2009.  He is perhaps best known for his quote:

“The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind.
The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish,
about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.”

Arthur Rowe was desperate to sign Danny from Aston Villa in 1954 and £30,000 secured his signature, the best money that Rowe and Tottenham ever spent.  Rowe had heard the stories about Danny at Barnsley and Aston Villa but recognised a kindred spirit and knew that he and Blanchflower shared the same vision of the game.  From his very first game in a Spurs shirt, Danny showed the superlative skills that made him the country’s premier attacking wing half.  Always demanding the ball, everything he did was simplicity itself, whether playing a short pass to his inside forward, dropping a long ball into the stride of his opposite winger or arrowing a defence-splitting pass to his forwards.

The first League game of the season, at home to Everton, and Spurs fans were, as always optimistic, when Bill Nicholson announced the team: Bill “Hovis” Brown; Peter Baker, Ron Henry; Danny Blanchflower, Maurice “Mo” Norman, Dave MacKay; Cliff Jones, John White, Bobby Smith, Les Allen and Terry Dyson.  After announcing the team Nicholson talked to Cliff Jones and gave him this explanation, “I’m going to give you a run on the right because that is where we need you at the moment.”  The ever thoughtful Blanchflower had spotted the potential benefits of switching Cliff Jones to the other flank even before Bill Nicholson.  When Cliff initially joined Spurs, he tended to run the ball straight into the opponents facing him.  Danny told The People’s Ralph Finn that he thought the fault would be cured if Jones went to outside-right, and it was.  Spurs didn’t look like potential champions until the last five minutes against Everton signalled the start of the finest season by a club side in the history of English football.  Tottenham won 2-0 with goals from Smith and Allen and Julian Holland wrote in Spurs - The Double, “In retrospect, it seems merely that they started the season 85 minutes late.”  Baker, Henry and Norman performed solidly and Blanchflower, White and Mackay inspired most of the attacks but it was Danny Blanchflower who shone like a beacon.  He covered every inch of the pitch; probed repeatedly for any openings and helped his defence with many timely interceptions.  He looked precisely what he was; a cultured, classy, stylish footballer.

On Monday August 22nd 1960 Tottenham travelled to Bloomfield Road, Blackpool to play the Seasiders without Cliff Jones who had been injured in a tackle with Alex Parker of Everton.  Cliff Jones had badly damaged ankle ligaments and would be out of action for a month so Terry Medwin slotted back into the side.  I had played for Stockport County “A” team on the Saturday but made the trip to Bloomfield Road with some friends to watch my heroes and of course to see how Spurs fared against the great Stanley Matthews.  I needn’t have worried as Ron Henry, Tottenham’s unspectacular but rock-steady full-back always had a good game against Stan.  Spurs turned on a terrific performance and it was the night they were first dubbed “super Spurs” in a 3-1 victory with goals from Dyson (2) and Medwin.  Blanchflower and White were devastating and it seemed like Spurs threatened to score in every attack.  The next game I saw was on Wednesday September 7th at Burnden Park, Bolton.  As I trained on Tuesday and Thursday night and played on Saturday afternoon it was fortuitous for me that Tottenham were playing some midweek games in Lancashire.  At this stage of the season Spurs had won their first six games but Bolton Wanderers who had finished 6th in the league in 1959-60 were always tough opponents.  Cliff Jones and Bobby Smith were missing through injury and Frank Saul made his debut at centre forward, what a baptism against a defence that was feared throughout the land with full backs Roy Hartle and Tommy Banks.  Cliff Jones hated playing against Bolton and often said, “Wingers always come back from Burnden Park with gravel rash from the cinder track that surrounds the pitch.”  At 1-1 it looked like Spurs would drop their first points of the season but in the 80th minute a piece of inspired brilliance from Blanchflower produced a cross for John White to score a truly great goal and a 2-1 victory.  This would be the last time I watched Tottenham this season “live” as my time would be occupied playing.

Spurs moved on to their next game at Highbury which turned into a masterclass led by the architect-in-chief, Danny Blanchflower.  Frank Saul and Terry Dyson scored for Spurs but Arsenal drew level with goals from David Herd and Gerry Ward.  This was the moment for Spurs to show their resilience and following an interchange of passes in midfield involving Mackay, White and Blanchflower Spurs were awarded a free kick and a long devastating ball from Blanchflower over centre half Sneddon allowed Les Allen to go through and lob the ball over goalkeeper Jack Kelsey to win the match 3-2 and beat a record set by the Preston Invincibles in the League’s first season.  On December 17th 1960 Everton entertained Tottenham at Goodison Park and under a stone-coloured sky proceeded to hammer away at the Spurs defence for 35 minutes.  It was then that Blanchflower inspired the turnaround by sending Cliff Jones streaking through the Everton defence with a dazzling flighted pass and his cross was pulled down by John White to beat Everton goalkeeper, Albert Dunlop.  Then Danny moved menacingly up the right wing, his white shirt ghostly in the fog, before playing an astute ball to Terry Dyson who returned the ball quickly to his captain.  Danny took the ball to the goal-line and crossed for Les Allen to hook the ball home from close range.  Everton pulled a goal back through Frank Wignall but a fierce left foot drive from Dave Mackay clinched a 3-1 victory.  Danny Blanchflower played as he talked, fluently and without drawing breath.  Delicately balanced and cool as a cucumber, accurate as a slide-rule with his passes, he was always available to his colleagues in an open space, a magnet for the ball.  Arthur Rowe once said of him, “In nine matches out of ten Danny had the ball more than any other two players on the field.  It’s an expression of his tremendous ego, which is just what a captain needs.

During the five minutes before a game Danny would take a ball and carefully run through his repertoire of skills with Mackay and Norman.  He would stroke the ball short and long with the outside and inside of both feet, practice volleying before trying a few back-heels with backspin and topspin, the ultimate professional.  He was 34 years old, no longer a spring chicken but tremendously fit.  He always wanted to start pre-season training before anyone else.  His brother, Jackie of Manchester United fame always said, “we were different, I liked a bet on the horses and a drink while Danny preferred chatting to the ladies.”  To Jackie football was just a game but to Danny it was an obsession.  He was a revolutionary free-thinker, an incurable romantic and perhaps the most beguiling talker the game has ever known.  Danny was always in the thick of the action, wanting to be where the battle was fiercest because that’s where he could be most effective.  His balance and grace on the ball marked him out from the crowd and one pundit wrote, “his art, his grace, his skill, his coolness, his magnificence in play are incredible.  Watch him as he brings a ball down out of the air as if it were glued to his toe, watch him as he traps and wheels in one movement and beats an opponent with a shudder of those shoulders.  Beauty flows from the play of this prince of half-backs.

Following the Everton game Tottenham celebrated with their Christmas Party and chairman, Fred Bearman, presented each of the 14 players who’d played in those opening 11 victories with a silver tray engraved with the scores and the names of their opponents.  Two victories against West Ham United on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day plus a 5-2 win over Blackburn Rovers on December 31st took Spurs into 1961 full of optimism.  They felt that the League title was within reach but the FA Cup was a different matter as Bill Nicholson was always wary of playing against clubs from the lower divisions, especially away from home.  Tottenham’s next League opponent was Manchester United and they travelled up on the Friday night by train and stayed at the Queen’s Hotel, their usual accommodation for games in Manchester.  When the players woke on Saturday morning they couldn’t see 10 yards out of their bedroom windows because of a heavy fog.  The game was called off and Spurs travelled back to London, trained on Sunday and then returned to Manchester for the re-arranged game on Monday night.  They lined up without Jones, Medwin and Baker because of injury and the team couldn’t find its usual cohesion and went down 0-2 for their 2nd defeat in 26 matches.

On Wednesday January 18th 1961 the PFA and the Football League resolved their dispute at a meeting with the Ministry of Labour.  The League agreed to abandon the regulations that effectively tied a player to one club for life and a new pay charter was drawn up.  The end of the maximum wage.

Under Blanchflower’s cool direction, Spurs overcame Arsenal, 4-2, in front of 65,000 spectators at White Hart Lane with a display of superlative football that John Arlott described as follows, “Tottenham were once again wearing the air of conscious superiority which is now their accustomed strip.

The FA Cup

After beating Charlton (H) 3-2, Crewe (H) 5-1 and Aston Villa (A) 2-0 in the first rounds of the FA Cup Spurs were drawn to play away at Sunderland, lost in the obscurity of the lower regions of the Second Division, in the 6th round, a potential “banana skin”.  A scrambled 1-1 draw at Roker Park was followed by a resounding and welcome 5-0 victory in the replay, but a scare nonetheless.  A strong Burnley team awaited Spurs in the semi-final and for the first 30 minutes they had Spurs on the ropes.  Blanchflower, in his brand new black and white boots was ice cool, coming to the aid of Baker, Norman and even Mackay and his calm influence got his team through that difficult half hour.  It was then that Blanchflower switched to the offensive with tantalising passes to his forwards who were sadly out of touch.  Bobby Smith scored following a mistake by Adamson and then added another to be followed by a goal from Cliff Jones to send Spurs to Wembley to play Leicester City.

At five minutes past two the Spurs players hung their coats in the Wembley dressing room and Bill Nicholson came to have a word with all the players.  He suggested that the players took another look at the Wembley turf and he wanted them to kick a ball in the air to see how it bounced.  Blanchflower joined the others to get a feeling of the atmosphere and to judge the conditions.  Rain was forecast so the players decided not to wear the rubber studs but to revert to leather studs.  In the dressing room Mackay noticed a certain tenseness for the first time since he had joined Spurs, the obsession with the “double” was having an effect.  At 2.20pm, as the crowd sang “Abide with Me”, Bobby Smith could be found at the mouth of the Wembley tunnel, he remembered, “The atmosphere was fantastic.

The time passed quickly and before he knew it Danny Blanchflower was walking up the tunnel behind Nicholson and alongside the Leicester City team.  The Spurs players lined up in their customary way.  Danny followed by Bill Brown, Cliff Jones behind John White with Mackay carrying a ball and Maurice Norman out last.

The teams were:

Tottenham Hotspur

Brown; Baker, Henry; Blanchflower, Norman M, Mackay; Jones, White, Smith, Allen, Dyson

Leicester City

Banks; Chalmers, Norman R; McLintock, King, Appleton; Riley, Walsh, McIlmoyle, Keyworth, Cheesebrough

Princess Marina was introduced to the Leicester players first.  As she walked across the short stretch of red carpet towards the Spurs team Blanchflower noticed that her eyes and face were expressionless and still.  Near the end of the line, before reaching Maurice Norman, she stopped, turned slowly, and said to Blanchflower, “The other team have their names on their tracksuits”, Danny replied, as only he could, “Yes ma’am, but we know each other.

Tottenham were the fourth League Champions since the turn of the century to reach the FA Cup final in the same season.  The other three, Sunderland, Newcastle United and Manchester United, had all been beaten by Aston Villa, the last of the “double” winners, it was as if the men from Villa Park were destined to protect the achievement of their forbears. Leicester were very much in the game in the early stages and might have scored on three occasions and their raking three-man moves threatened to unlock the Spurs defence.  After about 15 minutes Tottenham looked anything but the Pride of London or the Team of the Century but in the 19th minute the dreaded Wembley injury jinx struck again right in front of the Royal Box when Len Chalmers seemed about to clear the ball when Les Allen raced in to challenge for the ball and Chalmers fell to the ground writhing in agony, his face creased in pain.  For the seventh time in nine years the Wembley hoodoo had struck again and Len Chalmers was a virtual passenger for the rest of the game.  Leicester, like many teams reduced to ten men, fought even harder and it wasn’t until almost halftime that Spurs began to improve with Jones making darting runes and Blanchflower, at last, starting to win his tackles. Leicester held out bravely until the 69th minute when exhaustion and a heavy pitch took its toll on their players and Spurs went in front through Bobby Smith. In the 77th minute the game was won when a jubilant Terry Dyson sent in a bullet header from a Smith cross to clinch the cup 2-0 and achieve what had seemed impossible since 1897.

It might have been the worst game the 1961 team had played but it was good enough to clinch the “double”.  Blanchflower said afterwards, “Bad matches teach you more than good ones.  This one confirmed that our team could play well below par, disappoint all our expectations, and still beat average teams like Leicester City.  Some people might call that “coasting” or “idling” or maybe “rubbish”, but it’s part of a good professional’s make-up that he can have a below average or plain bad day and still beat the average teams.  The trick is to know your own capabilities, and to recognise a bad day when you see one, to ride along with it, taking fewer chances and minimising errors.  When you can do that, you are a real professional.

Back to the League

Until February 1961 Bill Nicholson had been unable to communicate with the bench from his seat in the stands but Spurs had now laid a cable for a telephone link enabling him to give trainer, Cecil Poynton, any instructions on tactics if there was an injury to a player, for example.  A shock home defeat to Leicester City by 2-3 should have served as a “wake up” call to Tottenham.  Spurs now had a sequence of results that caused people to doubt their credentials.  Aston Villa (H) 2-1, Wolves (H) 1-1, Manchester City (A) 1-0, Cardiff City (A) 2-3, Newcastle United (H) 1-2 and Fulham (A) 0-0.  The Manchester Guardian reported the 1-0 victory as follows, “Manchester City’s home Football League game against Tottenham Hotspur at Moss Side took ill about three o’clock, rallied strongly for half an hour, had a relapse at 3.35, and expired at 4.10.  At the inquest, a verdict of “accidental death” was recorded.

Bill Nicholson called the team together for a crisis talk, “The defence is doing very well, just like last year, but the forwards are going to have to finish a lot better if we are not going to repeat last year’s disappointments.  You’re not doing enough work and that is a criticism I don’t want to make again.

As always, Nicholson was right as Tottenham’s whole pattern of play was built on work.  A Good Friday game at home to Chelsea settled the nerves when, after a goal less first half, Blanchflower drew the Chelsea defence and crossed a perfect ball for Jones to score.  Blanchflower, masterly throughout, started the move that brought Spurs a second goal for Cliff Jones and a final score of 4-2 did not flatter Tottenham.  Easter Saturday saw Tottenham dispose of Preston North End, 6-0, and then travel to Stamford Bridge on Easter Monday where a 3-2 victory over Chelsea almost guaranteed Spurs the title.  In this game Jimmy Greaves was booked by the referee for protesting when he had a goal disallowed but soon after Jimmy ran from the halfway line to put Chelsea 2-1 in front.  Danny Blanchflower had been given the responsibility to make changes on the field by Nicholson and so he called the newlywed Maurice Norman up for a free kick.  Mackay crossed the ball and “Mo” headed it home.  Sheffield Wednesday came to White Hart Lane on Wednesday, April 17th 1961 knowing it was their last chance to stop the relentless drive to the title of Spurs.  They had gone 19 games without defeat and had conceded only 39 goals in 38 games.  It was a tough bruising match in which silky skills were sacrificed in a fiercely contested battle.  After 42 minutes Wednesday led by a goal from Don Megson but three minutes of magic turned the game.  Terry Dyson equalised and then a free kick deep in the Sheffield half saw Blanchflower once more call Maurice Norman into the penalty area.  A superb cross was headed down by “Mo” and Les Allen crashed the ball home.  In the second half Danny was back to his best and took control of the match, slowing the tempo of the game and taking the sting out of Wednesday’s attacks, a masterful captain at work.  The 2-1 victory clinched the title for Spurs and the results of their remaining three games were, Burnley (A) lost 2-4, Nottingham Forest (H), won 1-0 and West Bromwich Albion (H), lost 1-2.


Tottenham Hotspur squad, November 5th 1960

Back Row (L-R)
John Hills, Bobby Smith, John Ryden, Maurice Norman, Mel Hopkins, Peter Baker, Dave Mackay

Middle Row (L-R)
Cliff Jones, Tony Marchi, Bill Brown, John Hollowbread, Ron Henry, Les Allen

Front Row (L-R)
Tommy Harmer, Cecil Poynton, Danny Blanchflower, Bill Nicholson, Terry Dyson

It was Cecil Poynton who told Alan Mullery he was a disgrace to the club when he was sent off for Tottenham.  When Alan asked Cecil, who was the last player to get his “marching orders” for Spurs, Cecil replied, “me in 1928.”  Two notable players missing from this line-up were Terry Medwin and Frank Saul and the young man, John Hills, far left on the back row made 41 appearances from 1954-60.

Blanchflower’s idol was Northern Ireland manager, Peter Doherty, a wonderful, non-stop inside forward who had taken his country to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Sweden in 1958.  Blanchflower, of course, was his inspirational captain.  Doherty noted, “We wouldn’t even have reached the World Cup finals without Danny.”  Like so many Irish players, Blanchflower sat at Doherty’s feet emotionally.  Danny once wrote, “He was the great North Star that twinkled brightly in the heavens, promising untold glory, beckoning me to follow, and always showing the way.

The Northern Ireland team leave London airport for the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden with Danny Blanchflower stood behind Peter Doherty who is in the forefront with his mackintosh over his right arm

Doherty clearly had a great influence on Danny’s development as a man and as a player.  “Always remembering Peter Doherty, I aim at precision soccer.  Constructiveness, no matter what the circumstances, ball control, precise and accurate distribution, up in support at all times possible, back in defence to blot out the inside forward when necessary.  I am described as an attacking wing half, and I suppose that is correct.  Sometimes I even score goals.

The 'double' winning Tottenham Hotspur team
with the league championship and FA Cup trophies to prove it

Back Row (L-R): Brown, Baker, Henry, Blanchflower, Norman, MacKay

Front Row (L-R): Jones, White, Smith, Allen, Dyson

Injury brought Blanchflower’s playing career to an end in 1964 but he went on to build a career in journalism; controversial, forceful and innovative as ever, he was highly respected by his peers as someone who knew the game.  When Bill Nicholson retired, he lobbied unsuccessfully for Blanchflower to succeed him.  The Spurs board of directors did not follow Bill’s advice which says more about the directors than it does about Bill or Danny.  To employ Danny as a manager would take strength of character and a belief in his views on football.  In hindsight, it might have been a blessing in disguise as I could see more battles in the boardroom than on the field of play.

Danny Blanchflower with George Best in 1976

He was one of only a handful of players to have been awarded the title of FWA Footballer of the Year on two occasions, winning in both 1958 and 1961.  On February 6th 1961, he also became the first person to turn down the invitation to appear on This Is Your Life, simply walking away from host Eamonn Andrews live on air. "I consider this programme to be an invasion of privacy", he explained. "Nobody is going to press gang me into anything."

On May 1st 1990, Tottenham held a testimonial match for him at White Hart Lane, but by this stage he was in the first stages of what would later be diagnosed as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.  He was eventually placed in a Staines nursing home where he died as a result of pneumonia on December 9th 1993, aged 67.

His gravestone reads:

To the Glory of Robert Dennis Blanchflower. 
Beloved father & Grandfather, 1926-1993. 
To thine own self be true.

Blanchflower was honoured in his home city of Belfast with an Ulster History Circle plaque recognizing his outstanding achievements in the world of sport.

The blue plaque is located at 49 Grace Avenue, his childhood home.

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Design: David Ainsworth