NORMAN GILLER’S SPURS ODYSSEY BLOG No 229
Submitted by Norman Giller
My neighbour in the Royal Box on Saturday was positively glowing with pride as Harry Kane led England out for the World Cup warm-up match against Nigeria at Wembley.
“Harry is a very special player and very special person,” he said. “For me, he is the complete footballer. People think of him as a centre-forward, but just watch him off the ball. He is always looking to be where is best for the team, and he passes the ball with vision and accuracy. Left foot, right foot, head. He can do it all. I’d always have him captaining my side because he is a true team player whose enthusiasm and energy is infectious. On top of everything, he is a very personable young man who is the ideal role model for young professionals.”
The person delivering this anthem of praise was the inimitable David Pleat, the only man to have managed Tottenham four times (including three stints in a caretaker capacity). Pleat always stepped up to the plate.
He still has deep affection for Spurs in general and Mauricio Pochettino in particular. “A class act,” he said. “So glad he is staying with Tottenham for what is a huge transition period for the club. I just know that under him the team will go on to great things.”
The Pochettino influence can be seen running right the way through the England squad. Including Kyle Walker, there were six players in action against Nigeria with Spurs discipline stitched into their game: Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose, Eric Dier, Dele Alli and, of course, Captain Kane.
I broke all Royal Box protocol by jumping up and punching the air when Our Harry scored his inevitable goal. (I had already disgraced myself by being the only man in the Royal Box without a tie … took it off in the car and forgot to put it back on … galloping old age. I let down the small band of surviving 1966 World Cup reporters who were VIP guests of the FA, and suitably suited and booted apart from me! Bottom of the class, Giller. Again.).
I was sandwiched between David Pleat and Peter Shilton, who has been a pal going back to when he was a seventeen-year-old understudy to Gordon Banks at Leicester. “I’m a great Harry Kane fan,” he said. “He would’ve been a success in any era. I love his shoot-on-sight attitude. Not so sure I’d have enjoyed it if I’d been facing him between the sticks!…”
Our Spurs Odyssey columnist Norman with England 125-cap goalkeeper Peter Shilton in the Royal Box at Wembley on Saturday
More football royalty in the Royal Box: In front of us, Sir Trevor Brooking, who I had first reported on in his schoolboy playing days. He offered the opinion:
“We’ve known all about Harry from his teenage days with the England Under-19s and he just keeps getting better. His work ethic coupled with his skill and power makes him a fantastic striker.”
All the Tottenham boys equipped themselves well, and I would have put the marvellously efficient Eric Dier ahead of Gary Cahill as man of the match.
I just wish Christian Eriksen was English, because the one glaring omission in Gareth Southgate’s promising squad is a skilled playmaker to give them midfield drive and direction. That could stop them making progress beyond the quarter-finals in Russia. Hope they prove me hopelessly wrong (I went to the Michael Fish school of forecasting). Why not check out these world cup odds. All sorts of opportunities are available.
It is going to need Dele to dig deep into his bag of talent to come up with tricks of the unexpected. I have never known a player match him for attracting choruses of derision from the opposition fans. Every time he touched the ball on Saturday the huge contingent of Nigerian fans booed and jeered him because had had chosen to play for the country of his birth rather than his ancestry. The poor lad cannot win.
Dele is used to this treatment because he gets it regularly on his travels in the Premier League, where his now hopefully buried temptation to dive has not been forgotten by jeering rival supporters, who would love to have him in their side.
I have had sleepless nights worrying that Pochettino could still be tempted to take the Real Madrid job. But my pessimism has (hopefully) proved unfounded, and he will lead Tottenham towards the promised land of their new home. I just hope Daniel Levy’s unreasonable critics will give him credit for nailing Mauricio to a binding contract.
Can’t wait to visit the new ground, and hoping it is going to be ready on schedule. Or it could be back to Wembley for a handful of more games.
But we will all prefer to occupy the new Lane on time. I might even put on a tie to mark the occasion!
Danny Blanchflower, one of Tottenham’s all-time greats, once walked out on Eamonn Andrews and refused to accept his ‘This Is Your Life’ book. While waiting for the new season to get under way and Spurs to move into their state-of-the-art home, I will be telling you the story here that Eamonn could not tell. Part Two starts in Danny Boy’s beloved Belfast …
There are those who think of Danny’s life and career as just the Glory-Glory years at Tottenham, but there was much before and after his legendary deeds at White Hart Lane. Let’s start at the beginning, in Belfast, where Danny was born in the General Strike year of 1926, with the Belfast shipyards about to be paralysed when the United Kingdom shuddered to a halt as the unions and the Government squared up to each other.
In his autobiography Danny opens with the line: “I was born around 5am on Thursday, 10th February 1926.” Wrong, Danny Boy. It was a Wednesday (I remember it well, thanks to a Google search!). Wednesday’s child is according to the nursery rhyme full of woe, but Danny was more full of wit and wisdom.
I flew over to Belfast to pick the considerable brains of the journalist who knew Danny best of all, Dr Malcolm Brodie, a press box colleague of many years who was an eyewitness to the Blanchflower career from his earliest days in the game. I know I will get no arguments when I say that Malcolm was the best informed football writer on anything to do with Northern Ireland. Blanchflower, Best, Dougan, Bingham, Jimmy McIlroy, they were all his personal friends who used to trust him with confidential facts that he kept confidential. Sadly, Malcolm passed on just before I started writing this book and I bow my head in his memory. He was the same vintage as Danny, born in 1926.
Malcolm had picked me up at George Best Airport in a chauffeur-driven car and gave me a royal tour of Belfast and all the spots where Danny had made his early inroads into football. A fixture at the Belfast Telegraph for more than 40 years and a veteran of reporting 14 World Cup final tournaments, Malcolm told me:
" Danny and I were born in the same year, and we had a rapport that came naturally. He was one of the wittiest and wisest men I ever knew, and there was nobody to touch him for leadership on the pitch where it mattered. He was Mr Cool in a crisis, and while all those around him were losing their head Danny would be thinking of how to make the most of any given situation. Often there would be snarling players reduced to sudden laughter because Danny would have found the humour in the incident. I remember once seeing some terrible carnage in a match against Scotland at Windsor Park in the fifties. Suddenly players who had been kicking lumps out of each other were bent double with laughter. I asked Danny afterwards what had happened and he explained that he had simply asked the referee to change the ball. When the referee said that the ball was fine, Danny replied: ‘I was thinking perhaps in view of the tackles you’re allowing we should be using a rugby ball.’ It instantly diffused what was becoming a nasty atmosphere."
We had arrived on our first stop on the tour: 5 Elmdale Street in Dunraven Park in the Bloomfield district on the east side of the city, a tired-looking two-up, two-down red brick building in what was then a rundown part of Belfast. This was where Robert Dennis (Danny) Blanchflower was born, the first of five children – three boys, two girls – who were brought up just above the poverty line in a neighbourhood ravaged by the Depression of the 1930s. A blue plaque on the wall announced: ‘Danny Blanchflower Lived Here.’ Another plaque is being planned by the Ulster History Circle to commemorate his memory.
As the family grew, so they moved to several different houses in the same area in sight and sound of the dockyards, where his Dad slogged for pennies. The Blanchflower family, like those around them, were working-class Presbyterian in a city often divided by religious faith. This was a contentious subject that Danny always avoided. “A man’s religion should be a matter between he and his conscience and the business of nobody else,” he used to say, curtly bringing down the guillotine on any attempts to make religion a topic for discussion. “Put me down as a truant-playing Presbyterian.”
Danny got his lifelong love of music – swing jazz and light classics – from his father, John, whose hobby away from his grafting work in the shipyards was to black up as a minstrel and sing the songs of the American South. He was so taken with American music that he attempted to emigrate with his young family to the United States, but Danny was saved for British football thanks to a mix-up of medical papers by the immigration department around the same time as the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and father John changed his mind.
His passion for football came from his mother, Selina, who played as a regular inside forward for the Roebucks, a hugely popular ladies football team who were well known throughout Ulster.
In my Blanchflower File I fished out an interview Danny had given me when I was on the Daily Herald (that later morphed into the broadsheet Sun , before becoming the boisterous tabloid we know today). This was the Big Freeze winter of 1963 when there was no football for three months, and we were desperate to fill sports page space. I wrote a feature involving major sports stars called Mother Knows Best, and this was Danny’s contribution as captain of Northern Ireland and Tottenham:
"My mother was the person who encouraged me to play football from almost as soon as I could toddle. My earliest memories are of sitting in my pushchair on the touchline with my father looking after me while we watched my mother playing inside-forward for a very good Belfast ladies’ team called the Roebucks. Family history has it that I once ran on to the pitch in the middle of a game and tried to join in. I was said to be three at the time.
Mother was an excellent tactical player, and knew all about positioning and the importance of accurate passing. It was she who first taught me ball control and the importance of kicking with both feet. She used to join in our games on the cobbled streets and had better ball skills than most of the boys. My mother drilled into me that you should be a team player first and foremost, but to polish your skills so that you could do outstanding individual things when it was necessary for the team. Yes, my mother knew best and I have felt her influence throughout my career as a professional footballer."
Our next stop on the Malcolm Brodie tour was the site where Ravenscroft Public Elementary school used to be, now a nursery school. This was where Danny had his first organised matches, and at weekends he would play for the 19th Belfast Wolf Cubs, with whom he gained his first representative honours for Belfast Cubs against Dublin Boys in 1937.
Malcolm said: “Danny told me he never went anywhere without a small ‘tanner’ ball at his feet. He said it was as if it was glued to his boots. He quickly became the school captain, and progressed from the Cubs to the Boys’ Brigade, often playing three games on Saturdays.”
Danny did not have his brains in his feet. He was bright as a button at school, and won a scholarship to Belfast College of Technology. By now he had a little brother who was as football mad as Danny. Here’s the contribution Jackie was going to make to the This Is Your Life show that never was. He was scripted as saying:
"Danny used to shake me awake at six o’clock every morning to go on training runs with him, and we would have a small ball at our feet, passing it back and forth to each other. We both caught the football disease from our mother, and she would often join in with us in kickabouts in the street. People thought she was our older sister, and she could out-dribble most of the boys. Danny had got himself a small round as a newspaper delivery boy, and he used to rope me into help so that the quicker he got the papers delivered the quicker we could get a game of football in before school. Our big idol was the one and only Peter Doherty and we used to try to play like him, doing tricks with the ball. We also used to have ice-cream before games because we read that’s what ‘Peter the Great’ did."
The one and only Doherty was then going to be sprung as the final surprise guest before Eamonn handed over the Big Red Book. This footballing genius, the George Best of his time, had been Danny’s hero in his formative years, and Danny later became his skipper in the great 1958 Northern Ireland team that reached the World Cup quarter-finals under Doherty’s magical management.
All Danny’s plans of a university education went out of the window with the outbreak of the Second World War on 3 September 1939. He had decided to leave Belfast College and boost the family income while his father was away serving his country. He became an apprentice electrician at the Gallagher’s cigarette factory in Belfast, a safe haven for somebody who was famously a non-smoker and tee-total.
Belfast was taking a daily battering from Hitler’s bombers, but Danny still managed to keep his football going by forming his own club, Bloomfield United, made up of colleagues from Gallagher’s and anybody who wanted a game. He bought a set of old shirts from a defunct club for ten shillings. By now he’d joined the Air Force cadets, and several of his fellow recruits played for what was known as ‘Danny’ s team’.
My tour guide, Malcolm, told me as we visited Danny’s old haunts: “He quickly came to the attention of Glentoran, the best of the local clubs. But they could not guarantee him the regular football that he wanted and so he continued with his Bloomfield team. His life changed when he lied about his age to get into the RAF as a trainee navigator. This was after the Luftwaffe had flattened his house and the family had to move again after a short evacuation to the country.”
Danny bunked at the local police station while working as a bike riding air-raid warden before putting a year on his age and volunteering for active service in 1943. He sat an RAF ATC examination that won him a scholarship to St Andrews University in Scotland, where he studied mathematics, mechanics, physics, electricity and applied kinematics, passing all his exams with – his pun – flying colours.
He found time for football at St Andrews and also as a guest player at the University of Dundee. In his spare moments away from studying and the football pitch he started a life-long love affair with golf at the famous Old Course, where he played for hours during his stay in Scotland.
The next step in his determination to become an airman took him to Canada for advanced studies, and he had just completed basic training when VE Day was announced and the war in Europe was over. He briefly continued his service in Plymouth before returning to Belfast and his apprenticeship at Gallagher’s. But he had only one thing in mind for his future: football.
For the the last stage of my Belfast tour, Malcolm took me to the Glentoran Football Club, which is rich in history and founded in 1882, the same year as Tottenham Hotspur. Nicknamed the Cock’n’Hens, they had to temporarily move home to a shared ground with Distillery after Hitler’s bombers had wrecked their Oval stadium in 1941.
Glentoran were rebuilding their ground and their team by the time Danny returned to them in the first post-war season after guesting for Swindon Town. He was persuaded to rejoin the Glens for a £50 signing-on fee and £3 a game. After eagerly putting his name to the contract Danny later discovered that most of his team-mates were on £10 a game and had received signing-on inducements of up to £500.
“From then on,” he told me years later, “I never ever trusted the word of a football club director.” For ever after, the football establishment in all its shapes and forms was his enemy.
There were early signs of the rebel buried inside Danny when he refused to train unless he was given a ball. He recalled:
"I went to see Glentoran manager Frank Thompson and told him that unless he let me have a ball in training I just might as well give up the game. All that running round and round, lap after lap of the pitch was driving me insane. They had no chance of making a runner out of me because throughout my career I was as fast as a snail in a tray of treacle. But give me a ball at my feet and I could run all day. I saw no purpose to it without a ball, and I said to the manager, ‘If I’m going to be a carpenter, I need the tools to make me a carpenter. If I’m going to be a footballer, I need to work with the equipment that is going to make me a better footballer. That equipment is a football. It’s pointless me training without one. If you want a runner, I suggest you go and sign Sydney Wooderson (the top British miler of the time).’ Result was we were given a ball with which to train and, glory be, our team work and ball control improved overnight."
This was almost unheard of in British football, actually training with the ball every day! The theory was that if the players saw little of the ball between games they would be all the hungrier to get it at their feet on match days. Already, Danny was the thinking man’s footballer.
It was Danny’s lack of pace that saw him moved from outside-right and then inside-right to a midfield role at right-half. This was where he was most comfortable, and able to use his passing to dictate the pace and pattern of a game.
He continued to take odd jobs in the ship yards, and as an electrician in the local bus depot to supplement his football wages, but he still had his sights set on being a full-time professional. His consistency earned him a call-up to the Irish League team that took on the giants of the English League at Goodison Park in February 1947.
Danny admitted he was in awe of being on the same pitch as legends of the game like Stanley Matthews, Wilf Mannion and Tommy Lawton, and he was disappointed with his performance in a 4-2 defeat.
There was an incident on the way to the inter-League match that greatly upset Danny and had a lasting impact. Irish officials and their friends crowded on to the team coach with the players at Liverpool docks, and almost to a man they were drunk out of their heads. It was seven-thirty in the morning.
One of the officials tried to press a hip flask on to the 21-year-old tee-total Blanchflower. “Go on, son, have a snort,” he said. “It’ll make you feel on top of the world.”
Danny refused it in as polite a way as he could muster through his feeling of embarrassment and anger. He told me years later:
"It was my first experience of travelling out of Ireland with a team, and my first look at a species I came to despise ... the hangers-on. You get them with every club, with every team, people who are there for the free ride and the drink. What made this even more upsetting was that several of the drunks were club officials. What sort of example were they setting for we young footballers? We gave them a nickname: the Blazered Brigade. They gave nothing to the game and took all they could. I grabbed every opportunity to put them down in the years ahead, and I rarely saw eye to eye with club directors, and certainly not with the people clinging to their coat-tails."
Back home in Ireland, Danny’s thoroughbred style of football with Glentoran came to the attention of a young sportswriter called Malcolm Brodie. He told me:
"I started writing glowing reports about him, and the scouts began flocking over from England to take a look at the player I described as ‘a born leader and a passer of the ball in the Doherty class.’ But as well as lacking pace he was slightly built and most of the scouts dismissed him as being too much of a lightweight for the more rugged English league. They must have been blind if they could not see that here was a young player who could control a match. He always had great authority and was like a Napoleon of the pitch in the way he could dictate a game. I could not believe that clubs were not fighting each other for his signature."
Eventually, one club decided he was worth a punt. Danny was off to the unlikely English football outpost of Barnsley .. and that’s where we pick up the story next week. Hope you join us.
This week’s totally trivial teaser, just for fun:
Who was a loser and then a winner in FA Cup finals with Spurs … and was just 17 when he played in his first FA Cup final?
Please email your answer to me at Teaser5@normangillerbooks.com. Deadline: midnight this Friday. No prize, just pride and the satisfaction of being right!
Last week I asked: Who is the only football international to have collected the Premier League trophy as captain before joining Tottenham?
Most of you came up with the correct answer … Tim Sherwood, who captained the Blackburn Rovers team that won the Premier League title in 1994-95 I just wanted to underline that Tim had an exceptional playing career before becoming a Marmite Man of a manager, who surely deserves credit for being the first to give Harry Kane a Premier League platform.
Thanks for your company. See you same time, same place next week. COYS
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