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Born: Wednesday 10 February 1926, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Died: Thursday 9 December 1993, London, England (aged 67)
One of Northern Ireland's finest ever players, right-half Danny Blanchflower captained his country in their first ever appearance in the World Cup finals. At club level, he led Tottenham Hotspur to the first league and cup double by an English club in more than 60 years and also became the first captain to lift a major European trophy with a British club. He later became a highly respected commentator on both British and American television.
He was born Robert Dennis Blanchflower on 10 February 1926, into a talented footballing family. His mother had played for a Belfast ladies' team and his younger brother Jackie would also go on to become a professional player. His earliest experiences of football came in the cobbled streets of Belfast, where kicking a tennis ball around helped him to develop the excellent ball control that would be a significant part of his game. As a teenager Blanchflower would play football whenever he could, sometimes up to three matches a day on Saturdays.
During the Second World War he lied about his age in order to join the RAF, but his training in Canada was cut short when the war came to an end in 1945 and he soon found himself back in Belfast. Shortly afterwards Blanchflower signed his first professional contract with Belfast side Glentoran, becoming a regular in the team at right-half and helping the team reach the Irish Cup final in 1947. He impressed several English club scouts when representing the Irish League against the Football League, but many were put off signing him by his small stature.
Finally, an English side did take a chance on him and Blanchflower signed for Second Division Barnsley in 1949. Within a matter of months he had been called into the Northern Ireland team, although his debut came in a forgettble 8-2 home defeat to Scotland. Barnsley were at best a mid-table Second Division side during Blanchflower's time with the club, but his performances soon attracted the attention of top-flight sides and in March 1951 he joined Aston Villa.
As he developed as a player, Blanchflower came to be very interested in tactics and grew frustrated that the system played at Villa was, in his eyes, too inflexible. He also disliked the fact that training sessions often involved little more than running around the pitch. Although he was made club captain, he grew to be openly critical of the club's management and was soon looking for another club, Arsenal seemed set to be his next move, but with the club dithering over Villa's asking price their rivals Tottenham stepped in and it was there that Blanchflower went in the autumn of 1954.
It was as captain of Tottenham that Blanchflower would have his greatest successes. Club management disapproved of his tendency to change tactics during the game, with once such incident causing him to be dropped, but his motivational ability and massive influence over his team-mates was clear for all to see. As a player, Blanchflower was not the quickest but was incredibly intelligent, able to use speed of thought to slip past opponents and generate space. From half-back he was able to break down opposing attacks and utilise his superb range of passing to dictate the pace of the game and generate numerous chances for his forwards.
Tottenham were almost relegated in his first full season, but rebounded to finish second in 1956-57 and seemed set to become regular contenders for major honours. The following season however would prove to be one of very mixed emotions. In January 1958 Blanchflower was part of the Northern Ireland team which beat Italy to qualify for the World Cup for the first time, but just weeks later his brother Jackie, who played for Manchester United, was almost killed in the Munich Air Crash. Jackie was badly hurt and not expected to survive and although he eventually did recover, he was never able to play football again.
Tottenham eventually finished third in the league that season and Blanchflower was named Footballer of the Year. In the World Cup in Sweden, he captained Northern Ireland to two victories over Czechoslovakia, one in their opening game and one in a play-off which took them into the quarter-finals. Although they lost 4-0 to a very talented French team, their first appearance in the finals had been a resounding success. Early in 1958-59, Blanchflower was remarkably dropped by new Tottenham manager Bill Nicholson and requested a transfer, but with the team struggling was soon restored to the line-up and made captain again.
That proved to be the right decision, as having fought off relegation in 1959 Tottenham finished third a year later, just two points behind champions Burnley. In 1960-61, they went even better and stormed to the league title and reached the FA Cup final for good measure, Blanchflower being ever present all season. No club had won the league and cup double since 1897, but a 2-0 win over Leicester City made Blanchflower the first captain in 64 years to lift both trophies in the same season. He became only the second man to be named Footballer of the Year twice and was selected to take part in TV show 'This is Your Life', but famously refused live on air to take part, considering it an invasion of privacy.
Tottenham seemed set to retain their title in 1962 but a poor finish let both Ipswich Town and Burnley overtake them. They did however have the consolation of another cup final appearance, this time against Burnley. Late in the match Tottenham were leading 2-1, when a handball on the goal-line gave them a penalty. Blanchflower took the kick and sealed back-to-back cup wins with a 3-1 victory. Tottenham had narrowly lost to Benfica in the European Cup semi-finals that season, but European success was not far away.
In 1962-63, Tottenham swept through the European Cup Winners' Cup with comprehensive aggregate wins over Rangers, Slovan Bratislava and OFK Belgrade taking them into the final. An apparently tough match-up against Atlético Madrid proved to be no contest, finishing in a crushing 5-1 victory. For the first time, a British team had won a European competition and it was 37-year old Blanchflower who had the honour of lifting the trophy. Now in his mid-30s, it would prove to be the last major trophy of his career.
Blanchflower's international career had ended in 1962 and by 1964, he was struggling to keep up with the demands of top-level football and decided to retire. He left active involvement in football and became a newspaper columnist and television commentator. He worked for Yorkshire Television in the UK and for CBS in their coverage of the National Professional Soccer League in the USA, where his outspoken criticism of that league's standard of play shocked his employers.
In 1976 Blanchflower returned to football to become manager of Northern Ireland, but was unable to lead his country to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. After leaving that job, he became manager of Chelsea but struggled to get his methods across to the players. Chelsea won just five of his 32 games in charge and were relegated to the Second Division in 1979. Blanchflower soon returned to journalism, where he was known for being openly critical of the football authorities. In his 60s, he was struck down by Alzheimer's Disease and died in December 1993, at the age of 67.
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- Published on Friday, 16 March 2012 16:45