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.
If you visit Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane ground today, Danny Blanchflower’s most famous quote is literally writ large on the wall opposite the reception desk in the main entrance to the West Stand. “The great fallacy is that the game is first and foremost about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom."
That quote has become almost an unofficial club motto at Spurs. And it has also proved something of a millstone for every team that has followed in the footsteps of the Double winners. It is taken as evidence that the way the team plays is more valued than the results it gets. But this is to misunderstand the point Blanchflower was making. It’s the “first and foremost” bit that gets overlooked. Blanchflower never dismissed the importance of winning. He was a professional footballer with enormous ambition, after all. The section that talks of “going out and beating the other lot” is a pretty clear indication that winning was foremost in his mind. The point is that for Blanchflower, winning was a given. Of course you were there to win, because that is the nature of sport. But how you win is what distinguishes mere success from glory and, as he said, the game is about glory.
To interpret that as ‘the way you play is more important than the result you get’ is plain wrong. The myth that has grown up around that Double side is that it was all-out attack, an approach based on scoring more than the other lot. But there was defensive solidity too. Much is made of the 11 consecutive wins at the start of the season, but less of the 11 clean sheets kept during that campaign. Much is made of the fact that Spurs scored more goals than anyone else, but they also conceded fewer than all but one of the other sides in the division. What made that Spurs team great was the combination of achievement and style that is the ultimate expression of sporting excellence.
It’s not one or the other, it’s one and the other. It’s why the 2010/11 vintage Barcelona side are so loved while the Liverpool side that dominated the 1980s is merely acknowledged. It’s why Spain’s 2010 World-Cup winning side stands above the 1974 Dutch side of Johan Cruyff. Winning is important but not enough. The point is to achieve what journalist Paul Hayward described, when writing about Barcelona’s 2009 Champions League win, as “perfect synchronicity between bare success and the promulgation of artistic principles”.
Blanchflower understood this. It was why he made that quote. It was why he was able to infuse the team he led with the belief it could be done. It was why he continues to stand out after all these years. Many players have inspired their team to win. Few, if any, have inspired their team to heights previously unscaled in the manner in which Blanchflower did.
Writing the obituary for Blanchflower in The Independent newspaper on 19 December 1993, Ivan Ponting said: “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.” Now we are comfortably into the 21st century, it’s possible to make the final judgement. And as I see it there are only two possible candidates.
One is Eric Cantona. If there is one individual who can be singled out as the key figure of the great Manchester United side of the 1990s it is Cantona. Before he came, United were on the brink but not quite there. It was his flair, ability and personality that gave the Reds that little bit extra that enabled them to do what Blanchflower’s Spurs had done all those years before and reach new heights that had long been eyed but which had began to look unreachable. Cantona was not only instrumental in achieving the Treble, he was instrumental in establishing his team at the pinnacle of the game. He was a free spirit, at times a difficult character, certainly a one-off. Did he overstep the mark when he launched his infamous assault on the abusive fan at Selhurst Park? Almost certainly. Blanchflower would never have done such a thing, but the times were so different, the player’s background so utterly unsimilar, that it is a pointless argument to have.
In any case, we are not looking at whether Cantona was a hero or a villain, but at whether he was original, eloquent and free-thinking. Original and free-thinking maybe, but perhaps not as eloquent as he would like us to think. Both men liked the sound of their own voice, and neither were backwards about coming forward. But, with the greatest respect to Eric, some of that stuff was pure gobbledygook. “When the seagulls follow the trawler it’s because they think sardines will be thrown in to the sea”? Even Cantona later said he wasn’t quite sure what he was on about. It doesn’t really stand up against Blanchflower’s observations. So Cantona, great player and personality that he was, doesn’t measure up.
When thinking of who else left football with some of its best quotes, was original and free-thinking and eloquent with it, one is inexorably led to Brian Clough. Clough was certainly original and free-thinking, and his eloquence was of a grittier type, kitchen sink drama to Blanchflower’s more received approach. Both men were visionaries, both shared a view of how the game was to be be played, both clashed with authority – Clough perhaps more so because he was a product of a later generation less drilled to operate within the old lines of engagement. But Clough’s teams were effective rather than lavish, a product of the fact that at Nottingham Forest he had to make a whole from the sum of parts that were not always the most highly engineered. That is not meant as an insult to his great Forest side of the early 1980s, in fact it underlines Clough’s sheer coaching ability. The way he transformed John Robertson from a journeyman into one of Europe’s most effective players is just one example of what made him so good.
He runs Blanchflower closer, but for me Danny still edges it. I grew up admiring Clough hugely – he seemed more like one of us than many in football and my suspicions of the FA are rooted in their obstinate refusal to give him the England job he so clearly deserved. But he wasn’t as pivotal as Blanchflower. The Irishman brought so many qualities together, at such a key time, in such a fully-rounded way, to achieve a feat which changed the game forever. There’s more than an element of football’s current troubles encouraging a romantic appraisal of Blanchflower, but the fact that whenever the well-being of the game is discussed the philosophy and approach of Danny Blanchflower is never far from being quoted rather proves the point.
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