NORMAN GILLER’S SPURS ODYSSEY BLOG No 233
Submitted by Norman Giller
Close your eyes and dream along with me. We are in Moscow on Sunday July 15 and the two World Cup finalists are led out by Tottenham players … on the right Hugo Lloris of France, and alongside him Our Harry Kane at the front of the England team.
You have to admit it’s a lovely picture to conjure up, but there are a few mountains still to be conquered before the dream can become reality, starting with England’s Last 16 challenge against Colombia tomorrow.
Lloris and his fabulously talented French side are already through to the quarter-finals after their stunning victory over Argentina. Kylian Mbappe is the most exciting teenager I’ve seen on the World Cup stage since Pele back in 1958. That was another fine Messi he got Argentina into with his gazelle-smooth running and powerhouse finishing.
For Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to have to exit stage left on the same day was extraordinary, but there are many exceptional players still in Russia to continue to serve up a wonderful football feast.
I have been privileged to have witnessed (live and on the box) all the World Cup finals since the black and white nine-inch screen days of 1954. There is every chance that this 2018 tournament could overtake even the golden 1970s Pele-propelled finals as the greatest ever.
I was out in Mexico on reporting duty and never thought I would ever again see football to match the magical menu provided by Brazil, Italy, Germany and an Alf Ramsey England side that many considered superior to the 1966 World Cup winners.
But Russia 2018 is matching it, and if the standard is maintained could even surpass the splendour of 1970.
Yesterday’s two Last 16 matches both ended in dramatic penalty shootouts. Not sure my ticker will take another one involving England!
The cruel cruel penalty exit for our Christian Eriksen and Denmark was hard to watch. But thank goodness for Luka Modric, whose boots Eriksen has filled at Tottenham. He does not have to live with his penalty miss during the nail-biting extra-time.
You must have a heart of stone not to feel for Schmeichel (Junior and Senior), but it’s Luka and Croatia who go into a quarter-final showdown with hosts Russia.
Today there is more Tottenham-tinged action when Belgium battle with Japan for a place in the last eight. They are on the hard side of the draw, while – whisper it – England have what looks on paper the easier route through to the final.
I wonder if I will be in the same exhilarated mood after England’s match against Colombia tomorrow? Much depends on the enormous responsibility that has been placed on the shoulders – or, more accurately, the right foot – of Tottenham defender Kieran Trippier.
Gareth Southgate clearly has a high regard for Kieran’s delivery, and he has been involved with most of the crucial deadball kicks. He has moulded his set piece kicking on the style of his hero David Beckham, and we can look forward to it becoming a back-up feature at Tottenham to the metronome dispatches of Christian Eriksen.
I just hope Trippier provides a first-class delivery service tomorrow and helps steer Captain Kane and his England crew through to the quarter-finals of this wonderful World Cup football festival. The dream is still alive.
Points to ponder: The finals are becoming a statistician’s paradise. Just consider this: Not a single player left in the tournament has ever played in a World Cup final and all three previous winning countries – Italy, Spain, Germany – are watching from home, and we have not even reached the quarter-final stage yet. I think the bookmakers must be having a bonanza.
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 Six kicks off as Danny is rocked by the horrors of the Munich air crash …
JUST as Danny was getting his career on to another level a dark cloud dropped on him and the Blanchflower family. His younger brother, Jackie, was in the Manchester United plane that crashed on takeoff at Munich on 6 February 1958. Jackie survived, but he was so badly injured that his playing career was over. Danny later admitted that he cried when he realised the extent of his brother’s physical and psychological damage:
“I felt so helpless as it sunk in that my kid brother’s career was over. He had not even scratched the surface with what he could have achieved in the game. There is no question that he had the potential to become a far better player than me. But it wasn’t to be. It was a terrible time, just terrible.”
Danny and Jackie had played a dozen times together for Northern Ireland and were key players in the team that qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time in Irish football history. The manager was their boyhood hero Peter Doherty, who made Danny his captain and righthand man. They thought alike on tactics and the powers of positivity.
There was a huge honour for Danny before he joined the World Cup squad. He was elected the FWA Footballer of the Year, a prestigious title that he was to win twice. He told me:
“What thrilled me about the award is that it was as much for what I had achieved with Northern Ireland as with Tottenham. I dedicated it to brother Jackie. We had been written off as no-hopers at the World Cup qualifying stage, but a lot of people had to eat their words when we accounted for a powerful Italian side to clinch our place in the finals. In the League, Tottenham finished strongly to take third place behind Wolves and Preston. Much of our success was due to the coaching of Bill Nicholson, who was the hidden power behind Jimmy Anderson’s throne.”
Northern Ireland set off for the World Cup finals in Sweden with a squad made up of just the sixteen fit players available. Every other team that had qualified had a full contingent of 22 men.
Inspired by the persuasive tongue of team manager Peter Doherty and Danny’s organisational skill on and off the pitch the Irish Cinderella men pleased the eye with football that was simple yet stunningly effective. They reached the finals at the expense of group favourites Italy, who many had expected to be serious challengers for the championship.
There was total farce and lost tempers on the way to Sweden. Ireland should have played their decisive qualifying match against Italy in Belfast in December 1957, but Fifa-appointed referee Istvan Zsolt of Hungary, manager of the Budapest Opera House, was held up by fog.
“The fat lady won’t be singing,” said Danny. The Italians refused to accept an Irish referee, and so the two teams played a charade of a match that was labelled a friendly but was overloaded with ill feeling.
The game ended in a 2-2 draw, and only the diplomatic captaincy of Blanchflower stopped it being a bloodbath. Here’s Danny’s colourful version of that notorious match:
“I broke up that many fights, I felt like a boxing referee. It was one of the angriest matches I ever played in, and the Press were not exaggerating when they called it the Battle of Belfast. The 40,000 spectators were in as bad a mood as the players, because they didn’t know until they got to the ground that it was no longer a World Cup match. We had just come off a 3-2 victory over a strong England team at Wembley, so our confidence was high. But it’s a wonder we got through the game against the Italians without broken limbs. They later claimed they were in fear of their lives after our human whirlwind Wilbur Cush had put the frighteners on them by getting his retaliation in first. It was as if World War Three had been declared, and I spent most of the game like a United Nations peace broker trying to keep warring factions apart. We played the real thing the following month, and you could see the fear in the eyes of the Italians. We kept our heads and concentrated on our football, and goals by Jimmy McIlroy and the calmed-down Wilbur Cush gave us a famous 2-1 victory and a first-ever place in the World Cup finals. It was the last game I ever played with my brother.”
The Irish became the sweethearts of Sweden with their seemingly happy-go-lucky approach to the tournament. Visitors to their headquarters were treated to hospitality that included rivers of the black stuff – Guinness, that was specially shipped in for the duration of the tournament.
To the untrained eye it looked as if the team was there more for a holiday than the serious business of playing in a World Cup. When the players were seen sitting up playing cards late at night before a crucial game, a foreign journalist said to manager Doherty: “Sir, your opponents were tucked up in bed hours ago.”
“Aye, that’s as maybe,” said the shrewd Doherty, who had been there and seen it all, “but are they sleeping?”
When asked what his team would do after matches, Peter the Great famously replied: “Sure, we’ll have one big party ... either to celebrate a victory, drink to a draw or drown our sorrows in defeat.”
It was, of course, mostly blarney, although the team and their followers did party well after each game. In their group matches they conquered Czechoslovakia 1-0, were beaten 3-1 by Argentina and held defending world champions Germany to a 2-2 draw. They then beat the Czechs again, this time 2-1 in a play-off for a place in the quarter-finals.
A feature of Northern Ireland’s performances was the mastery in midfield of the tandem team of Blanchflower and Burnley’s smooth-as silk schemer Jimmy McIlroy. Few teams in a tournament that saw the emergence of Pele and first-time champions Brazil could match their creative force.
For the record, the Northern Ireland team beaten 4-0 by France in the quarter-final was:
Gregg; Keith, McMichael; Blanchflower, Cunningham, Cush; Bingham, Casey, Scott, McIlroy, McParland.
They went out with their heads held high, beaten as much by player shortage as a French team powered by their dynamic duo, Juste Fontaine and Raymond Kopa.
Danny came back to a Tottenham team in sudden turmoil. They gathered only seven points from their first seven games of the 1958-59 season. He felt tired and listless after his strenuous efforts in the World Cup finals, and was wondering about his future at the age of thirty-three when suddenly a fatigued Jimmy Anderson was replaced as manager by one Bill Nicholson. It is the Blanchflower/Nicholson alliance that features next week in the serialisation of my book here in your favourite Spurs Odyssey watering hole.
This week’s totally trivial teaser, just for fun:
Which former Spurs player wears the No 22 shirt in the current World Cup and made his international debut for Morocco?
Please email your answer to me at Teaser9@normangillerbooks.com Deadline: midnight this Friday. No prize, just pride and the satisfaction of being right!
Last week I asked: Who played fives games in the 1958 World Cup finals, won 59 international caps and once wore the No 12 Spurs shirt at Wembley?
Yes, the answer of course the one and only Cliffie Jones, on the bench as substitute for the 1967 final against Chelsea. He is now 83-years-young and looks fit enough to fly down the wing as in the good old days.
Thanks for your company. See you same time, same place next week. COYS.
And good luck to Captain Kane and his crew against Colombia tomorrow!
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