Danny Boy, the greatest of all?
Sport

Danny Boy, the greatest of all?

Legendary footballer Danny Blanchflower (1926-93) is to be honoured with a Blue Plaque at his home place of Bloomfield, east Belfast.

Here we reproduce the our popular ‘Soccer Icons’ tribute to the incomparable Blanchflower from some seasons back. 

WHO was the greatest Irish man or woman? According to your politics it might be Michael Collins or De Valera. A literary giant perhaps – there are many: Becket? Joyce? Wilde? Swift? Someone from history or legend: Grace O’Malley? Fionn mac Cumhaill?

As a young boy growing up in England, Ireland was somewhere with interesting stamps for my collection baring the strange name of Eire. Otherwise it was a blank in my universe, although later I lived there.

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The first Irish man I became aware of was the footballer Danny Blanchflower, captain of my team. For me he was truly great.

From the age of 11, myself and Nicky Halligan, who lived a few doors up the road, undertook the trek on a Saturday morning from Orpington, north Kent to north London to see Tottenham Hotspur play.

Spurs were our passion. During hours of questions to and from school each day we would test each other on our knowledge of the club and its players, past and present.

When Saturday came, clad in our team’s colours we’d catch the train to London.

“Who do you support then, Arsenal?” joked the ticket collector.

“Nah! Spurs,” in unison, the indignant retort.

The gates at White Hart Lane opened at 1pm for a 3pm kick off. We used to arrive at the Paxton Road end a few minutes before 1pm. There was already a small queue, in order to command a place pitch side right at the front of the terraces. Then we whiled away the next two hours eating our sandwiches and trading more questions.

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At that time – the end of the 1950s – although we did not know it then, we were witnessing the building of one of the great club sides in English and for that matter, world football.

In 1960/61 Spurs became the first team to win the fabulous Double – FA Cup and League title in the same season. Others have emulated that feat since, but Spurs were the first and like the first in anything: the sub-four-minute mile, the step onto the moon, it is they who etch their names in history.

This team that the great Billy Nicholson assembled was a glorious creation. Journalists ran out of superlatives to describe the poetry of their football. Don’t talk to me about the beautiful game. I was reared on it.

Through the eyes of an impressionable youngster those images were burned into my mind. All other football since then has been measured against those sublime standards and much of it, frankly, found wanting.

Each player was a jewel carefully crafted, polished and lovingly placed in the crown.

There was a strong Celtic presence in the team. Cliff Jones, the flying Welsh winger, Three Scots: Bill Brown in goal, forward John White, exquisite ball control artist, and Dave MacKay, left half, hard man and enforcer, who so perfectly complemented the silky skills of the maestro, Blanchflower, right half.

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Mackay and Blanchflower, this was the heartbeat of the team. Danny pulled the strings; his was the vision, the skill and the leadership that drove the team forward. He was a man and a player apart: a truly elegant footballer, a cultured and intelligent man who thought about the game and the wider world. He went on to become a successful journalist after hanging up his boots. Ex-footballer pundits and media contributors are common now, but then they were unheard of.

Some men look at the world as it is and ask the question why? Others, like Danny Blanchflower, dream of things that might be and ask why not? During the 1959/60 season before their Double winning triumph, Blanchflower went on record saying he believed Spurs could achieve it. Billy Nicholson agreed with him. A few months later the conviction had hardened.

On the first day of training after the break, in July 1960, Danny told the Spurs chairman: “I’m sure we can do the Double this season.” So the prediction was made and it became a commitment. Focus on something hard enough and it can happen. The rest, as they say, was history. But you must look behind the statistics; the Cup victories, the League points accumulated, the number of goals scored, to understand that team and Danny Blanchflower’s role in it.

What underlay those achievements was not just a commitment to victory. There was also a commitment to something altogether more romantic. Style.

“Football is not really about winning,” Danny said, “it’s about glory…doings things in style, doing them with a flourish…it’s about dreaming of the glory that the Double brought.”

At 2.50pm on a Saturday afternoon, standing so close to the pitch that we could count the blades of grass, to the rousing sound of McNamara’s Band and the roar of the crowd, the team ran out. I furtively put on my cringing National Health specs and everything was brought sharply into focus – 11 heroes in white led out by Danny Blanchflower.

This is what mattered. In crowds regularly of 50,000 and 60,000 the hearts of two young boys leapt.

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Danny Blanchflower and Tottenham Hotspur were made for each other. The first time he heard their name was in the 1930s as a youngster growing up in Belfast: “TOTTENHAM HOTSPURS! There was something special about them. They were not just City, United or Rovers. They were one of a small bunch with more appealing names. They were like far away planets to me – out there somewhere where distance lends enchantment.”

Blanchflower was 28 when he finally arrived at Tottenham from Aston Villa, commanding a record fee at that time. He was 34 when the great Double season started. Near the end of his career he finally climbed the seemingly impossible mountain, right to the top. He dared to dream the apparently unattainable, yet his feet remained on the ground. He had the skills and vision to realise his dream. Saw the best move. Made the incisive pass. Drove his players on with words and deeds. Orchestrated his team. Drew them in. Swept them up. Inspired them to play beautiful symphonies. Maestro.

Danny, if you are in that great football ground in the sky, as I hope you are, and you can hear me, I want to say that you are in your rightful place now: in the company of Gods.