There are sadly less and less people who will know who Danny Blanchflower was, and if they do know the name, most will only know that he played for Tottenham Hotspur. Some will be aware that he represented Northern Ireland, and was the linchpin and Captain when Spurs became the first team in the 20th century to win the League and Cup double in 1960/61.
Apart from being a great player Blanchflower was not only an advocate for players and teams being tactically creative, he was quick-witted, and the master of the one liner.
During, and after Blanchflower’s playing career sport in the 1960’s was littered with players with individual brilliance that kept fans mesmerised. In football, in the UK alone, there were the likes of George Best, Jim Baxter, Alan Hudson, Frank Worthington, Tony Currie, Rodney Marsh and Charlie George. By the late 80’s and early 90’s these types of players were becoming far fewer. There had been Hoddle and Waddle, and then came Gascoigne, Cantona, and di Canio. Players who wanted to play their way, and had the confidence and skill back themselves, and frequently succeed where there feared to tread.
In cricket in the 1970’s there was Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd and Gordon Greenidge for the West Indies while Marsh, Walters, Lillee and Thomson were names on the lips of any team that had to play Australia, and of course Ian Botham was there for England. Just like football, by the 1990’s these larger-than-life players were becoming fewer. The likes of Shane Warne would still try and buck the system and sometimes succeed, and the same could be said of Kevin Petersen. Sadly cricket had become far more businesslike. There was a game-plan, now there were coaches who would send messages out to captains and batsman in the field and tell the players what they could and couldn’t do. No longer was the player given the freedom to read the situation, and act upon his instincts as a player and dig his team out trouble, or drive them home to victory.
In rugby the same generation that enjoyed the players mentioned had the free flowing Welsh to enjoy in the 1970’s. Possibly one of the greatest sides ever to take the field. In their team alone there was Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Phil Bennett, Gerald Davies, JJ Williams and of course JPR Williams; and that was just the backs! Australia in the 1980’s were another great side with plenty of flair. In the Grand Slam team of 1984, you had the likes of Mark Ella, David Campese, and Michael Lynagh to name a few. Again all of these players had the ability to change a game in a moment. They had the skill, and the belief in their own ability to back themselves when the chips were down, and their team needed them.
Across all sports we are losing the one thing that fans go to see, a moment of brilliance that they will remember and be able to talk about for years to come, as well as be able to say those immortal words, “I was there.”
Which brings us back to Danny Blanchflower, a man who was clearly ahead of his time, as back in the 1972 he was quoted as saying, “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 other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.”
How many sporting contests now are purely and simply about winning? How many matches can only be described as boring?
The phrase “parking the bus” has become one of the most used sporting terms, yet it is one of the saddest indictments on any game when a team does “park the bus.” It usually means that they have no idea how to beat the opposition, lack the players with the ability to beat the opposition, and have gone into the game expecting to be beaten, but hoping that they can, against all odds cling on for a draw.
Much has been written and said about the All Blacks and the responsibility each player has when they don that famous jersey. Each player’s responsibility is to leave the game and the All Blacks in a better place when they wear it for the last time than when they wore it for the first. A simple philosophy, and one that you would think every single team and coach would echo, but sadly that just isn’t the case.
Take Australia’s A-League, a competition in which there is no relegation; at least at the moment! A competition where if you come top of the league ladder at the end of the season you are not crowned “Champions.” That a team in sixth place can snatch that title from you if they manage to win four games in a row. So why do we see so many teams “park the bus,” why do we see so many teams play with one striker up front? Surely with no risk of relegation, and the chance of being crowned “Champions” even if you come sixth, you would expect to see teams playing more attacking football?
The question then is whether there are the players to entertain us? Looking at some of the talent in the competition the answer would be a resounding “yes,” but those players need to be given the freedom to express themselves. The coach must also realise that with that freedom will sometimes come mistakes.
David Campese on the British and Irish Lions tour of 1989 backed himself and lost the series for Australia. Carlos Spencer backed himself in the World Cup semi-final throwing what was always a risky pass. It cost New Zealand a place in the 2003 final. Then there was Mike Gatting’s famous attempt at a reverse sweep in the 1987 World Cup final off part-time spinner Alan Border, This proved a turning point in the match and one that saw Australia go on to win.
For all the great things these players do, occasionally we have to accept that they will make mistakes. As they say it is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all.
It is sad, and some would say unfair, that the modern-day athlete has any individual skills that they may possess drummed out of them at a young age. Maybe that was why the current crop of Socceroos looked devoid of ideas compared to the Golden generation of 2006? After all as much as he has scored vital goals for Australia, even the player dubbed “Australia’s greatest Socceroo” by some, Tim Cahill has never been a player with an ability to turn a game with a moment of sublime brilliance, like a Harry Kewell, Marco Bresciano or Mark Viduka. Although we will concede that occasionally Cahill will score an absolute cracker, that lives long in the memory. Ask yourself this, Who would you pay more money to watch in their heyday?
Today, if you do not ‘play the way you are facing’ and ‘play the lowest risk ball’ you are discarded by many coaches. One Super Rugby player advised that his coach had told the players that they were stick with game plan at all times, and were under no circumstances to back themselves. Is it any wonder that the team achieved little?
This is not coaching! Coaching is about making players the best they can possibly be. It is also about giving those players that you have already identified as having talent the belief to fulfil their talent.
To use another quote from the late great Danny Blanchflower, and this can be applied to any sport, not just football, “Whether you’re a player, manager, trainer, director, supporter, reporter, kit man or tea lady, football possesses the power to make the week ahead sparkle with a sense of joyous well-being.” It does and surely it is the responsibility of those who call themselves coaches to enable players to make our coming week sparkle and spark conversations around the water-cooler?
However, eclipsing that comment he said when asked whether Tottenham could afford to have Glenn Hoddle in the side, a player not renowned for his defensive work, – who ironically finished his career playing sweeper at Swindon Town- responded to the question posed by saying, “Hoddle? No, it’s the bad players who are a luxury.”
Of course there will be many a coach who will read this and become overly defensive. There will be others who will understandably pass the buck. They will defer to their ‘High Performance Director,’ and claim that they determine how the team plays, or they may handball the blame to what has become known as the “Curriculum for the game.”
If that is the case then let’s give Blanchflower the last word again, allegedly the conversation between him and one of the Tottenham Directors went as follows:
Director: “The trouble with you is that you think you know all the answers.”
Blanchflower: “Ah, God love you, you don’t even know the questions!”
Oh for more Danny Blanchflower’s and oh for the return of players with flair