A Tribute to Danny Blanchflower
by SpurSince57 (Mike)
I first saw Danny Blanchflower when I was just short of eight years old, on a sunny October Saturday afternoon in 1958. Saw him play, that is, for I’d been aware of his existence for maybe three years, hearing his name and that of our other players spoken by my father and grandfather when they returned from the at-first mysterious ‘Lane’ to which they vanished every other Saturday.
I knew what he looked like, because his face regularly featured in the football card sets which came in Lion and Tiger, and on the back pages of the Daily Mirror, Daily Express and Evening News, and sometimes on the flickering black-and-white screen of the television - on the occasions it could actually be persuaded to work. And I knew, of course, that he was our captain, which meant that he was one of our very best players, and that he was captain of Northern Ireland, too, although I only had the dimmest notion of what Ireland was beyond the fact it was another country, somewhere or other.
I’d been to the Lane a few times before, the previous season and that, but only to reserve games; my mother wasn’t too happy about me going to the first team games because of the crowds, but this Saturday when I went through my ‘Can I go to the game this afternoon, please, please?‘ and ran off the names of schoolfriends whose mums always let them go, throwing in the information that I’d been very good at school and got so many gold and silver stars, she relented, much to my surprise. It was Bill Nicholson’s first game in charge, my grandfather said, we were playing Everton and the crowd wouldn’t be too big, and I would be all right. So, after lunch, grandad and I got into dad’s Morris Oxford and set off, dad and grandad assuring mum yet again that I would be alright, and yes, they wouldn’t let me get passed down to the front over all the heads, which rather disappointed me.
We parked in White Hart Lane by the old grammar school and joined the crowds streaming to the ground. I was amazed. Attendances for reserve games in those days could be pretty substantial, but this was something else; I’d never seen so many people before. We were three of over 38,000 at the Lane that day, not a particularly large crowd, as my grandfather had forecast, rather less than two-thirds capacity, in fact, but still an astonishing sight to me. We took up our usual spot in the upper tier of the Park Lane, and a little before three the teams came out. Grandad pointed everyone out to me: there was Danny, there was Bobby Smith, Tommy Harmer, Jim Iley, Georgie Robb, Johnny Hollowbread, Maurice Norman … in fact, as I clutched my programme, it was Big Maurice Norman who fascinated me, for he towered over everyone else on the pitch.
At this distance in time I can remember virtually nothing of the game, other than that there were ten blokes in white shirts and ten in blue running around, and that every few minutes a huge roar went up, and at slightly longer intervals a rather more subdued ones from the Everton fans who’d made the trip, and after a couple of these I got the idea and went mental along with everyone else.
Fourteen goals went in that afternoon, ten of them to us. Afterwards my grandfather told me, ‘It won’t be like that every time, son,’ words which have always seemed very good advice for a Spurs supporter, and then turned to my dad with a bit of a grimace and said, ‘The first thing Nicholson’s got to do is sort out that defence.’
So that was my first sight of Danny Blanchflower, not, as I say, that I could describe a single thing that he did that afternoon other than kick the ball.
Danny had joined Spurs from Aston Villa a little over four years earlier, in December 1954, Arthur Rowe’s last and best signing for the club. It had been a protracted and convoluted transfer saga which had begun with his handing in a transfer request in September, and Villa informing those clubs interested that he was available for £40,000, an unheard-of sum for those times. They themselves had paid Barnsley £15,000 for him three years earlier. We and Arsenal were both interested, but unwilling to match Villa’s price. We made a gentleman’s agreement that neither of us would go above £28,000, and the choice would be Danny’s. Somewhat surprisingly, Arsenal kept their side of the bargain, and eventually Danny chose us. Villa, however, held out for £30,000.00, and Rowe had to go to the board and persuade them to pay the extra £2,000.00. They were reluctant, for Danny was almost twenty-nine, but Rowe won them round. He had seen something very special indeed in Danny, and was convinced he was the ideal man to take over from Alf Ramsey as captain and Bill Nicholson as right-half. The board finally agreed, and Danny signed: £30,000 was a colossal sum in the mid-fifties, the equivalent of a £15,000,000-£20,000,000 signing today, and shattered the then record. It was, however, to prove money very well spent, a bargain indeed.
What had appealed to Rowe was not merely Danny’s outstanding qualities on the field, but his vision and intelligence. His ‘push-and-run’ side had revolutionised English football and taken the First Division by storm three seasons earlier, but its stars, like Nicholson, were ageing now and our fortunes had taken a sharp dip. Rowe had made himself so ill with overwork as he fought to turn things around that he had been hospitalised. He would shortly retire and hand over the reins to his assistant, Jimmy Adamson, but he had seen in Blanchflower a man who would be one of the two linchpins of our revival. The other, of course, was Bill Nicholson, who had been appointed club coach and assistant to Adamson. It was, however, generally thought that Adamson was a stop-gap, and that Bill would be pulling many of the strings.
For his part, Danny had recognised a kindred spirit. He had grown increasingly frustrated with the conservatism and backwardness of English football thinking since arriving at Barnsley from Glentoran in 1949. There, he had been amazed that there was no practice with the ball whatsoever, merely a concentration on physical fitness, and things had been little better at Villa. There seemed to him to be him to be a complacency, a lack of ambition, a sense that the club was looking backward, not forward; his attempts to persuade his team-mates to adopt new thinking had fallen on deaf ears, for Villa, like almost every other club in the land, were locked into the ‘dribble and hoof’ mentality of the long ball which had dominated English since the thirties. Danny was deeply envious of his younger brother Jackie at Manchester United, where Matt Busby was almost the only top manager other than Rowe who was attempting to break out of the straitjacket. But he had been greatly impressed by Spurs when Villa had played them, seeing in Rowe’s philosophy and tactics something very much in line with his own thinking: speed, precision, skill, and, above all, grace and style.
In the end, the decision between us and Arsenal was not too difficult. Danny made his first appearance in the Lilywhite on 11th December, in a goalless draw against Manchester City at Maine Road. A week later he stepped out on to the White Hart Lane turf for the first time, ironically, against Villa.