Sports Dinners was all the rage in the 1980’s and 90’s, even now used by clubs to raise much needed funds. Watching Paddy Barclay on Sunday Supplement reminded me of the time he and my fellow author Fred Eyre relaxed long into the morning hours after the book launch of ‘What A Game’ which became a best seller back in 1983. That was a memorable night, imagine walking into the room behind Jack Charlton and the legendry John Charles behind you.
In recalling Sports Dinners I have hosted around the country with ex Manchester United legends, following Wilf McGuinness’ exploits, let us look now in part two at a Busby Babe, JACKIE BLANCHFLOWER.
In the days of the Busby Babes, football was a strict 1-11 game with no substitutes, not even for the goalkeeper, teams even down to 10 men at times. You had the goalkeeper, right back, left back, right half, centre half, left half, outside right, inside right, centre forward, inside left and outside left. If you had to make a team change the following week the reserve in that position simply stepped up.
If they had allowed a single substitute, for Manchester United I am sure it would have been Jackie Blanchflower, although he played in his own right at numbers 4, 5 and 8 on many occasions. Indeed, in the time leading up to the crash he had been the first choice centre half vying with Mark Jones for the shirt.
They were two entirely different style of footballer. Jones, strong in the air very solid, whilst Jackie was very comfortable on the ball, befitting somebody who also played at right half and inside right. He also, memorably, had played for most of the 1957 FA Cup Final against Aston Villa in goal when Ray Wood was assaulted by Villa’s left winger Peter McParland. The irony of course was that McParland stayed on the field instead of being sent off and scored both Villa’s goals in their 2-1 victory.
Another irony was that Peter McParland was also an International colleague of Jackie Blanchflower for Northern Ireland, for whom Jackie’s brother Danny was the captain. Danny himself was a very fine player who played at right half, being captain of the famous Tottenham Hotspur side who became the first side to win the double of league and cup in the 1900’s, in 1961. He later became a famous journalist.
When the Munich Air Disaster occurred, Jackie survived the crash but suffered terrible injuries which ended his career. He did, however, turn to his natural Irish wit and become a top after dinner speaker throughout the 1980’s and 90’s. He was so good he could either be the entertaining speaker or be the comedian for the night.
It was his wife Jean who encouraged Jackie to do this, she being a fine singer around Manchester, including The Cromford Club which used to be just off Market St in Manchester and was a regular haunt of Matt Busby as the owner Paddy McGrath was a big friend of Matt’s and a big Manchester United supporter.
Jackie invariably had a cigarette in hand as he entertained the audience and I always enjoyed his company comparing him at functions. He spoke warmly of the Manchester United back room staff who also suffered terribly in the crash with the deaths of Tom Curry, Bert Whalley and Walter Crickmer. Tom Curry was known as ‘Tosh’ and all the Busby Babes had great respect for the man who was always seen in a long white overall. Jackie spoke of how he and his big mate in the side, Tommy Taylor, would play tricks on Tosh.
Jackie also recalled a memory of an early Manchester United game he played at Bolton Wanderers. ‘I was playing inside right this day, alongside Johnny Berry. Just before kick off, Johnny said ‘When Duncan gets the ball we should do a scissor move and you come onto the wing and I will cut inside. Duncan will send the ball to you, the full back will follow me and you can have the freedom of the wing’ now this was strange as Johnny Beery always hugged the line, rarely cutting inside. ‘OK, I said and after about five minutes sure enough Duncan is on the ball, Johnny cuts inside I move out to the wing and bang! Next thing I wake up in Bolton Hospital having been sent crashing into the paddock by the Bolton full back Tommy Banks, part of that fearsome Bolton back line of those days, Hartle, Hennin, Edwards and Banks.’
The last time I saw Jackie play for Manchester United was on Saturday 1st February 1958 at Old Trafford for the reserves against Wolverhampton Wanderers. This was the same day that the first team played at Arsenal in that never to be forgotten 5-4 victory, but back at Old Trafford 19,000 was watching a United side which included Ray Wood, Geoff Bent, Johnny Berry, Liam (Billy) Whelan, David Pegg and, of course Jackie. United won the match 4-3 with six of the players on the following Monday travelling to Belgrade for the European Cup quarter final tie with Red Star Belgrade, three of whom would lose their lives and two never play football again…
Jackie Blanchflower suffered terrible injuries in the crash and took a long time to adjust to life after being a vital part of a truly great side. His move back into the limelight entertaining people all over the country with his quick brand of humour and his intimate knowledge of what had made that great side tick, on and off the pitch, made him a big success again in his life. I will finish with another story Jackie told about himself; ’30 years is too long to mourn’ he said, ‘I tell a true story and I hope it causes no offence;
Sometime after the crash, someone asked me if it was me or my brother Danny who had got badly injured at Munich. ‘It was me’ I tell him, to which he replies; ‘Oh good, I always liked Danny!’
(A full appreciation of Jackie and the Busby Babes is the centre piece of Roy’s latest book, ‘The Unfulfilled Dream’ available on Amazon)