Brothers have everything and nothing in common, a mass of contradictions in spite of the inexorable blood link. Siblings might look and sound alike but strive for individuality from the moment they leave the womb. Danny and Jackie Blanchflower would each carve a unique place in the annals of British football, but for wholly different reasons.
Danny Blanchflower was born on 10 February 1926 in Bloomfield, a fiercely working-class district of East Belfast. Nurture and nature clashed head-on as mother Selina played centre-forward for a local factory team. By his teens, Danny was addicted to the game, sometimes playing for the school, Boy’s Brigade, and local league sides on the same day.
The Second World War rudely intervened and he subsequently trained as an RAF navigator. The outbreak of peace saw him sign for local giants Glentoran and quickly develop as an intelligent ball playing right half. English football would, however, prove an irresistible magnet as he transferred to Barnsley in April 1949.
Barely a month later, Danny’s younger brother Jackie signed apprentice forms with Manchester United. Born in 1933, he was seven years Danny’s junior; an age gap which should, in theory, have stripped away any competitive element between the siblings.
However, Danny wasted no time dragging his kid brother out on paper rounds and to football training. Jackie had the distinction of being an original Busby Babe, pre-dating Sir Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards by some four years. Jackie had already represented Northern Ireland at schoolboy level and could play in a variety of positions.
In October 1949, Danny made his international debut for Northern Ireland against Scotland at Windsor Park. However, they succumbed to an embarrassing 8-2 defeat as Scotland debutant Henry Morris scored a hat-trick in his only international appearance. He later clashed with Barnsley manager Angus Seed after he insisted players train without the ball. It was complete anathema to Danny, and he would shortly be seeking fresh pastures.
Meanwhile, Jackie was making rapid progress through the ranks at Old Trafford. Playing at right half he made his first-team debut in November 1951 against Liverpool. Danny completed a £15,000 transfer to Aston Villa towards the end of the 1950/51 season and nailed down the right half spot for Northern Ireland.
Jackie won his first full cap alongside Danny in the Home Championship against Wales in May 1954, as the brothers became the first to appear together for Northern Ireland. The younger Blanchflower played inside right in that game, in what was arguably his strongest position. In the 1953/54 season, he scored 13 goals in 27 appearances for United, but faced competition from Liam Whelan for the inside right berth.
Danny would find his spiritual home when he signed for Tottenham in December 1954. Manager Arthur Rowe proved to be a kindred spirit who favoured the more fluent push and run system. However, Jackie was the first sibling to put medals in the cabinet. Playing ostensibly at centre-half, he featured in the championship-winning sides of 1956 and 1957.
In 1957, United were on the threshold of a domestic league and cup double. Jackie got the nod over Mark Jones in the FA Cup Final against Aston Villa. The game took a dramatic turn when United goalkeeper Ray Wood was injured in a collision with Peter McParland. Wood was carried off with a broken cheekbone as Jackie cheerfully accepted the green jersey.
He performed admirably as substitute goalie but could not prevent a 2-1 defeat. The only remaining question mark was his best position – as the curse of all utility players inevitably fell on him.
United were the first English team to compete in the European Cup and were making steady progress as BEA Flight 609 refuelled at Munich on 6 February 1958. They had drawn 3-3 with Red Star Belgrade to secure a place in the semi-finals. Jackie travelled as a non-playing reserve along with 37 passengers and six crew. An unbearable tragedy would have devastating consequences for all concerned.
He suffered horrific injuries, including four broken limbs, a fractured pelvis and severe kidney damage. While a patchwork side United clawed their way to the FA Cup final against Bolton, Jackie returned to England on the day of the final and could hear the radio commentary during a cab ride. He tried desperately hard not to listen but wished he was out there. Jackie was only 25 years old but would never play football again.
Danny picked up the Football Writers’ Player of the Year award in 1958 and would enjoy a glorious summer at the World Cup in Sweden. Jackie won the last of his 12 caps in a World Cup Qualifier against Italy that January, but could only watch as his brother led Northern Ireland to the quarter-finals. Danny captained Spurs to a historic league and cup double in 1960/61 and the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1963.
His philosophy has entered into the game’s lexicon and rightly adorns the façade of Spurs’ new White Hart Lane stadium: “The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the lot. Not waiting for them to die of boredom.”
After retirement, Danny forged a highly successful career as a journalist and managed the Northern Ireland national side in the late-70s. However, the post-retirement path wasn’t quite as smooth for Jackie.
In the aftermath of Munich, he was forced to vacate the club house in spite of his wife’s pregnancy. With little assistance from United, he became a newsagent, bookmaker, publican, and finance officer. Thankfully, he found lasting success as an after-dinner speaker where he made the most of his natural, self-effacing charm.
Whilst Danny won the praise, Jackie was left with pity, borne from the well-meaning but suffocating sympathy of Munich. People remember Jackie more as the victim and not the skillful footballer whose career ended at the age of 25. However, success cannot be measured by longevity alone. As Danny once observed, the game is about doing things in style and with a flourish.
By Brian Penn