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Old 17th October 2009, 05:19   #1
Join Date: Oct 2004
Location: Houston Texas
Posts: 1,537
Default "50 Years On" - Jackie Blanchflower

50 Years On – Jackie Blanchflower – Mr. Versatility

On a winter evening back in 1994, I had the pleasure of sitting with Jackie Blanchflower at an Association of Former Manchester United Players dinner which was held in one of the executive suites within the Old Trafford stadium. It is an evening that I will always remember with such fondness and one that gave me so much pleasure.

Jackie by this time had passed his 61st birthday. He was portly and red faced, and a far different figure to the slim young man that I had first watched play for Manchester United Reserves back in the early 1950’s. So much water had passed under the bridge since Jackie’s halcyon days as both a Manchester United player, and an established Northern Ireland international. But on that evening, he was the life and soul of the party and it was such a great pleasure to sit and listen to him, and also for me, to know that I was in the presence of man who, but for tragedy, would certainly have gone on to be one of the greats in British and European football. Jackie was that good.

He was born in Belfast on the 7th March 1933. Like most youngsters of his age he developed the love of playing the game of football in Belfast’s streets and schools. Initially he was a forward and had developed great skills with his two feet and was an impeccable timer of the ball both on the ground and in the air. He rose to prominence in local schools football and eventually reached the pinnacle of playing for Northern Ireland Schoolboys. His performances alerted Manchester United and he was eventually signed from the Belfast junior club, Boyland, in May of 1949, and joined the first batch of the famous “Busby Babes.”

On November 21 1951, Jackie’s dream came true when he made his First Division league debut against Liverpool at Anfield, in a game that finished 0-0. He came in at right half for another youngster, Don Gibson (who later married Matt Busby’s daughter Sheena) who was out with a knee injury. For Jackie, it was a long wait for his next first team appearance – two years in fact. On October 31st 1953, Jackie was one of the youngsters who was introduced in the League game against Huddersfield Town at Leeds Road, which became known as the game when the team were christened the “Busby Babes.” He was ever present through the remainder of that season playing 27 League games (13 goals) and 1 FA Cup game (1 goal) – a really consistent and creditable beginning by any standards. His form was such that on March 21st 1954, Jackie won his first cap for Northern Ireland in a World Cup Qualifying match against Wales which they won by 2-1.

The following season 1954/55 he played in 30 of the first 31 games that were played and he contributed 9 goals. Unfortunately, in February of 1955, after 2 disastrous defeats to Manchester City (5-0 at Old Trafford in the League and 2-0 at Maine Road in an FA Cup Fourth Round tie) Jackie was one of the players left out of the team for the following game against Wolverhampton Wanderers. It wasn’t until the last three games of the season that he was able to get back into the team in which he scored another 2 goals. Emerging out of the Reserve team was another youngster from Ireland named Liam Whelan, and he became the real threat to Jackie’s place in the team even though John Doherty was still around.

There had been no histrionics from him regarding being left out, he went back to the reserves, worked hard, and eventually won his first team place back again. He was first choice again when the 1955/56 season began and played in 15 of the first 16 fixtures scoring just 3 goals. On November 12th, United were defeated by 3-1 at Burnden Park, Bolton, and after that game Jackie was left out in favour of John Doherty. Burnden Park was never a hospitable place for Manchester United, and the Trotters were a very physical team and always seemed to have United’s measure there. Once again, as with the defeat by Manchester City the previous seasons, Jackie seemed to be the one singled out. He was to play only one further game that season and that was at centre forward in place of Tommy taylor late in the season when Taylor was away on international duty. United were blessed with three very, very good young inside rights at the time; Blanchflower, Doherty, and Whelan. It’s ironic that all three of them played enough games in that championship winning season to qualify for a winner’s medal.

Jackie had gone back to the Reserves and it was his versatility that began to show through. On the pre-season tour of Scandinavia in 1956, Jackie was actually selected in goal for one of the tour matches. Busby had also moved him back to the centre half position and it was here that he really came into his own… however, Mark Jones was playing so well in the first team… two totally different kinds of player. Mark the big tall stopper type, but Jackie, much smaller, but very good ball playing type. What he lacked in physicality, Jackie made up for with brain and guile.

The 1957/58 began and Jackie still languished in the Reserves although he was still a regular first choice for Northern Ireland. He made one appearance in the first team between August 1957 and March 2nd.. and that was in the very first European Cup game that Manchester United ever played and that was in Belgium against Anderlecht on September 12th 1957. Trying to dislodge big mark jones was as hard as trying to win back his inside forward spot. However, on March 2nd 1957 in an FA Cup 6th Round tie at Dean Court in Bournemouth, Mark Jones injured his knee and it was an injury that would keep him out for at least a month. Jackie stepped in at centre half and seized his opportunity with both hands. His displays were outstanding and even though Mark Jones was fit by the middle of April, Jackie had cemented his place as first choice. He played exceptionally well in both legs of the semi-final against Real Madrid and walked out at Wembley in the FA Cup final against Aston Villa.

That Final saw him give such an heroic display as after just six minutes, Ray Wood was incapacitated due to an horrific piece of skullduggery by Villa’s Peter McParland, and had to leave the field. Jackie went into goal and played there until the last nine minutes of the game, and although he conceded two goals, Jackie gave a tremendous performance and it was as though he had played in goal all his life.

The 1957/58 season started and Jackie was still first choice. He did miss a game through injury early on and Mark Jones deputized, but as soon as Jackie was fit again, he went straight back into the first team. He was ever present until November 30th when he played against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane and in a 7 goal thriller, United lost 4-3. Jackie picked up a hamstring injury in the game and little were we to know, that would be his last first team appearance for Manchester United. Mark Jones returned, and by his performances made it hard for Busby to leave him out. Jackie returned to the reserves and prepared to battle to win his place back.

On 3rd February 1958 he flew out to Belgrade with the first team party for the European Cup second leg Quarter Final tie against Red Star. He went as cover should anything untoward happen and sat in the stands as United got the result that they needed to take them through to the semi-final. The next day was the blackest day in Manchester united’s history and Jackie’s life. The injuries that he sustained were severe and he was in hospital for over two months after the accident before he was able to travel back to Manchester. He’d suffered severe injuries to his arms and also to his kidneys and they were ultimately to end his career.

He tried to regain fitness but eventually a London specialist had to be firm with him and tell him that if he continued to play football, then there could be more damage done to his kidneys which could prove fatal. He was heartbroken. Football was all he’d ever known. He was just 25, had only been married to his lovely wife Jean for a few years, he’d lost his mates, his trade, and his liveliehood. It was such a devastating situation for which to find himself in. There was no counseling back then, nobody for him to lean on, Over the next few years he tried his hand at several different things… he bought a newspaper shop, worked for a bookmaker, became a publican, went back to school and became a finance officer… but nothing lasted more than 4/5 years. He’d been cocooned in football and the bitterness swallowed him up… it was natural and something that had counseling been available back then, would have helped him overcome it.

Life made him very cynical and especially about Manchester United. He stayed away from the club for years. It was the same for a lot of the survivors and they harboured similar feelings.. they felt that the club had let them down and could have done more. Jackie mellowed in later life and and he found his niche as an after dinner speaker. He was always in great demand and was such a treat to sit and listen to. He didn’t concentrate on football all the time although his stories would always keep you enthralled. Jackie was a naturally funny man and his delivery and timing of his jokes etc was perfect. He seemed so happy doing what he was doing and he’d started attending the Association of Former Player’s dinners.

The evening that I spent in his company at that dinner in 1994 was a pleasure and a privilege. He told me some wonderful stories and I’ll always remember the love in his eyes when he talked about big Tommy Taylor. Tommy was his best buddy and was also his best man at his wedding. Jackie had me laughing as he impersonated Tommy’s broad Yorkshire dialect and spoke of some of the scrapes that big Tommy got himself into. He talked of looking after Harry Gregg when he first arrived at Old Trafford and how he lit the place up. He waxed lyrical about Duncan, and little Eddie. There was such a wonderful look upon his face as he talked about his young friends and you could tell that he was remembering the happiness that he shared with them. Once the formalities of the dinner were over, Jackie had time for everybody….. he signed hundreds of menus and pictures and had a continual smile upon his face. For me it was wonderful to see just how he was remembered and loved by the Manchester united fans.

Sadly, Jackie was diagnosed with cancer and it was to be his last battle. I last saw him speak at a Sportsman’s Dinner evening at Wythenshawe Labour Club just over a year before he passed away. It was obvious then that he wasn’t well but it did not affect his performance. He did some Q & A after wards and I’ll always remember something he said during that session:

"Life has been full of ups and downs, but without pathos there can be no comedy. The bitterness goes eventually and you start remembering the good times. I loved it at United. From this distance, even going through the accident was worth it for those years at Old Trafford." He added softly: "I feel happy and at ease now."

Jackie slipped away on September 2nd 1998 and the world was a sadder place for the loss

Sleep on in peace dear Jackie, not only were you a world class footballer, but you were also one of life’s true gentlemen.

Jackie Blanchflower played 126 times for manchester united and scored 26 goals
He was capped 12 times by Norrthern Ireland and scored 1 goal
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