‘A biography of a visionary’ was an apt sub-title for a study of Blanchflower (1926-93). English football was bereft of genuine thinkers during the early post-war period, but Blanchflower was an exception to this general rule.
Born in Belfast, he held strong views on football, especially how it should be played. Voted as Tottenham Hotspur's greatest ever player, for him football was about the glory. It was he who said football was ‘about doing things in style, doing them with a flourish. It's about going out to beat the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom. It's about dreaming of the glory of the double’.
He made the statement on the eve of the 1960/61 season when Tottenham would famously go on to win the league and cup double with Blanchflower the team’s captain.
Blanchflower had earlier made his mark with Barnsley and then Aston Villa. It was perhaps unsurprising that he had an unconventional background for a professional footballer as he also pursued a career as a journalist.
When he was at Aston Villa, he wrote a column for the Birmingham Evening Mail as well as being a pundit on the local weekly radio show, Talking Football. After moving to Spurs, he wrote for the London Evening News before becoming a columnist for the Sunday Express after he retired in 1964.
The opinions he expressed in his columns were mirrored in the arguments he had at the clubs he played for, but they were usually a mark of exasperation.
Blanchflower played on the right side of midfield and was noted for his intelligent passing and the ability to make interceptions, which more than made up for a lack of pace.
At Barnsley, his first English club, he was frustrated in his attempts to practice and the lack of pre-match preparation. It was little different at this next club, where he was unpopular with Aston Villa’s senior players. In 1954, he moved to Spurs and it would be the best move of his career.
But early on at White Hart Lane, he fell out with the manager, Jimmy Anderson, and then his successor Bill Nicholson. Nicholson disciplined and dropped him before making Blanchflower captain.
It was an inspired move as both shared similar footballing ideas and Spurs became styled on the passing and movement of the Brazilians and the Hungarians.
Blanchflower came to wider public attention when, in February 1961, he was the first person who refused to take part in the television show, This Is Your Life. It was perhaps an early repudiation of an emerging celebrity culture as Blanchflower insisted that he was entitled to a private life.
The BBC tried again a few months later, but he still refused, although he had earlier been the first professional footballer to appear on Desert Island Discs.
Management – with Northern Ireland and Chelsea – was not for Blanchflower. He was unable to transfer his pioneering and romantic ideas to young footballers, perhaps typical of English football’s persistent resistance to modernisation.
For more information about sports history at DMU visit dmu.ac.uk/sportshistory.
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