The First Irish Busby Babe – John “Jackie” Blanchflower

Written by John White for Manchester United Then & Now

Belfast-born John “Jackie” Blanchflower made his way across the Irish Sea aged just 16-years old in May 1949 to join Matt Busby’s band of talented young players scoured from every corner of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Jackie was born in the Bloomfield area of east Belfast on 7th March 1933 and was the younger brother of Danny Blanchflower who was at Aston Villa at the time and who would famously go on to captain Tottenham Hotspur to Double glory in 1960-61. He lived with his family at 7 Elmdale Street just off Bloomfield Avenue and later the family moved home to Grace Avenue just off the Bloomfield Road. The Blanchflower brothers attended Elmgrove Primary School, Beersbridge Road, Belfast. Prior to accepting Manchester United’s invitation to join their youth ranks Jackie played for Orangefield Star, a team managed by his mum, and Pitt Street Mission in the Belfast Boys’ League before moving on to Boyland FC in the city. The young kid from Belfast was spotted by Manchester United scout, Bob Harpur, whilst playing as a schoolboy international for Ireland who immediately recommended him to manager, Matt Busby. Harpur was one of a number of scouts who searched Ireland looking for the next Johnny Carey along with Bob Bishop (United’s Belfast-based scout) and Billy Behan (United’s Dublin-based scout).

Boyland Youth Club was situated in Lomond Avenue just off the Holywood Road in the heart of East Belfast. It was hugely popular spot for the youth of the area and was run by Harry Stewart before Bill Stewart, no relation, took charge. Children of all ages frequented the youth club and availed of the facilities it provided, although for a few it was a better alternative to a night spent at home listening to The Archers on the radio with their parents or standing on a street corner getting soaked in the rain. Very few of the boys had a television set at home and so Boyland Youth Club became their home from home. Boyland Youth Club was known throughout Belfast for producing some excellent footballers, many of whom who went on to have long careers with Irish League clubs and the select few who earned a professional contract across the Irish Sea with an English First Division or Second Division side. Boyland Youth Club’s football teams (Under 14’s to Under 18’s) played under the name Lomond Star and participated in many of the big tournaments which were organised at junior level in Belfast. They were a very prominent side in Belfast during the 1950s and 1960s. One such tournament was the Clarke Groves Cup (Clarke Groves were a local bookmakers at the time) which was an annual summer tournament played at a ground known as “The Hen Run,” the home of Dundela FC, Belfast. The competition drew huge crowds every night of the week (except Sundays when no football was played) and competition between the junior teams was very fierce. On several occasions a fight broke out when tempers flared. The winners of the competition were presented with a trophy and a cash prize by the sponsors. The cash incentive lured players from all over Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland whilst the Irish Football Association (IFA) banned Irish League players from competing in the tournament as it was against IFA Rules to be paid. However, some players associated with Irish League clubs ignored the ban and wore a false moustache or beard to avoid being identified. In fact they would do almost anything to play as a “ringer” (a term used to describe an ineligible player) in the hope of being paid some much needed cash. A similar completion was held across the border in Ballybofey, on the south bank of the River Finn in County Donegal.

One player who could not disguise himself was a brilliant striker from Sailortown called Jimmy Hasty. From the mid 1800’s, Sailortown was the cosmopolitan area of Belfast, and was the hub of the port with countless foreign seamen staying in Sailortown waiting for their ship to set sail. It is estimated that around 5,000 people were crammed into houses, running from Clarendon Street to Pollock Street. Most families had the man of the house away at sea for most of the year and as soon as boys turned 14, they followed their fathers into a life on the ocean waves. St Joseph’s Church, situated in the heart of Sailortown, was a place for the entire community to share their kindred spirit. And back to the reason why wee Jimmy stood out so much – he only had one arm. He lost his arm when he was just 14-years old in an accident when he was operating machinery in a Belfast Mill (only 18-year olds were permitted to legally operate the machinery). It was his first day at work. Jimmy joined Dundalk from Newry in November 1960 after bagging countless goals for the County Down outfit and was affectionately nicknamed “Patsy” by his adoring Dundalk fans. Jimmy was well known to the football going fans in Belfast in the 1960s as he also played for the local Fredrick Star Football Club and Crusaders FC. Jimmy was a character and a half, not only was he a prolific striker he occasionally did nets when he fancied a stint between the posts and the IFA had to alter their rules for taking a throw-in to allow Jimmy to take a throw-in. Amazingly, Jimmy was a dab hand, if you will excuse the pun, at snooker which he played with the aid of a rest. Sadly, Jimmy was murdered, gunned down by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), a gang of loyalist paramilitaries, on 11th October 1974 as he walked to work on Brougham Street, Belfast. He was only 38-years old at the time of his murder.

Bob Bishop lived in Laburnum Street which was quite close to Boyland Youth Club and would watch as many of their games as he could possibly fit in over a weekend hoping to discover a new football star. A lot of the boys from the youth club would gather around Irvine’s Shoe Shop located on the corner of Bloomfield Avenue where it met the Newtownards Road, Belfast. The shop front offered protection from the wind and rain as the boys stood around talking about their favourite football teams. Dating girls came a distant second to playing football. Bishop would often take an evening stroll making sure he walked by Irvine’s Shoe Shop and stop to chat to the boys. Of course Bob knew many of the boys personally having watched them play for Lomond Star and Ashfield Boys’ High School on a number of occasions. Bob always had time for their countless questions about what it would be like to play for one of the big teams in England and used the opportunity to invite the boys away for the weekend to attend of the many football training camps he held at Helen’s Bay, County Down. Bob would hand the boys an information sheet about his football camps and ask them to show them to their parents. The boys were only too pleased to do what Bob had asked as they could think of no better way of spending their weekend than eating, drinking and sleeping football. A tremendous camaraderie was established by Bishop and his young protégés and for many of them, those weekends at his football camps were a stepping stone to a better life, a life as a professional footballer.

The Boyland Youth Club participated successfully in numerous youth competitions, including the IFA Youth Cup and the Dunmurry League (which was the Premier Youth League in the Greater Belfast area). Teams they would have considered rivals included Glebe Rovers, Ards Boys and Cregagh Boys. Neighbourhood rivals would have been Lombard and Ledley Hall. These latter two clubs were proverbial kicking machines who frequently played overage ringers, unlike Boyland and the others who had a fairly good sporting ethos.

Jackie signed amateur forms with United upon his arrival in Manchester and a year later he turned professional. The young Irishman was well liked at Old Trafford with team captain and fellow countryman, Johnny Carey, always there to offer the kid from Belfast any advice he needed. After all Carey knew what it was like to be a teenager so far away from home with no family or close friends around you to pick you up when you were down or celebrate moments of happiness with you. Blanchflower made steady progress in United’s youth teams under the watchful eye as always of Messrs Busby & Murphy.

Busby liked the fact that Jackie was a very versatile player who was comfortable in most positions on the pitch and although he initially played up front as an inside-forward for the team it was Busby who decided half-back was his strongest position. On 24th November 1951, 18-year old Jackie along with fellow Busby Babe, Roger Byrne (aged 20), was handed his senior debut for the club in a tough First Division away game at Liverpool. The pair followed in the footsteps of the first Busby Babe who broke into the first team, Eddie “Snake Hips” Colman who made his debut for United as a fresh faced 17-year old versus Sheffield Wednesday at home in Division One on 7th October 1950. Jackie played at half-back in place of Thomas Gibson whilst Byrne played at left back deputising for William Redman. Both debutants impressed helping United to a well-earned point from a 0-0 draw. However, it was Byrne who retained his place in the side for the next game and indeed for United’s last 24 League games of the 1951-52 season whilst Jackie lost his place in the team to Johnny Carey who had played at right-back in the Liverpool match but was switched back to half-back for the rest of the campaign. United ended the 1951-52 season as Champions of England, claiming the title by four points over the defending Champions, Tottenham Hotspur.

It would be 17 months before Jackie made his second senior appearance for the team, replacing Henry Cockburn in United’s 2-2 draw away to Charlton Athletic on 3rd April 1953. It was Jackie’s only first team game of the season. The following day United faced Cardiff City in the League at Old Trafford and Jackie’s place in the side was taken by a 16-year old debutant who had joined United as an amateur in June 1952 aged 15 and who could not sign professional forms for the club until his 17th birthday, a certain Duncan Edwards. And ironically it was Jeff Whitefoot who kept both Jackie and Duncan out of the team for United’s last remaining five League fixtures which saw them finish 8th in the table. Tommy Taylor (6 games), Jack Rowley (3 games) and Stan Pearson (2 games), Edward Lewis (2 games), Roger Byrne (1 game) and Dennis Viollet (1 game) shared the No.8 jersey for United’s first 15 League games of the 1953-54 season before Blanchflower did enough in training to prove to Busby that he was the man to command the shirt and he did. Jackie played in all 27 of United’s remaining League fixtures to help the team to 4th in Division One, netting an impressive 13 times. He also appeared in United’s solitary FA Cup game of the season, scoring in a 5-3 away defeat at Barnsley in Round 3 marking an unceremonious exit from the competition. It was the only goal he ever scored in the famous competition. On 7th November 1953, he scored the first of his 27 goals for the club in United’s 2-2 home First Division draw with Arsenal. The following season, 1954-55, he scored 10 League goals in his 29 League games but United could only manage a final placing of 5th in Division One. Season 1955-56 saw the introduction of a new football competition which was contested by the Champions of various domestic Leagues across Europe, the European Champions Cup (European Cup and today the Uefa Champions League). Chelsea, the reigning English Champions, were barred by the Football Association from entering the inaugural European Cup because football’s governing body in England were of the opinion that the midweek games would hamper the League fixtures. This was the same FA which refused to allow England to participate in the inaugural Fifa World Cup in 1930 in Uruguay and the subsequent two competitions prior to the outbreak of the Second World War (1934 in France and 1938 in Italy). However, the Scottish Champions, Hibernian, participated in the competition and reached the semi-finals where they lost to the French side Stade Reims who themselves lost the Final in Paris to the Champions of Spain, Real Madrid. Jackie started all 11 of United’s opening League games of the 1955-56 and went on to make a total of 18 League appearances, scoring 3 goals, to help Manchester United reach their rightful place in the top tier of English football , First Division Champions. The team had an average age of 21 and were nicknamed “The Busby Babes” after their inspirational and talismanic manager. United won the title by 11 points from runners-up Blackpool which was a record margin in the 20th century and were unbeaten at home. Busby was adamant that his young team should be allowed to show what they could do on a football pitch against the best sides Europe had to offer and so Manchester United defied FA orders not to enter the 1956-57 European Cup competition and played their first ever competitive game on 12th September 1956 in Belgium. However, to his credit the FA Chairman Sir Stanley Rous supported Busby’s decision. And so United travelled to Anderlecht where they faced the Champions of Belgium, RSC Anderlecht, and came home with a 2-0 win in the 1st leg of the Preliminary Round. Dublin-born Liam Whelan played in the club’s first ever European tie and in the 2nd leg he scored twice in a 10-0 win which remains a club record score for a European game.

Season 1956-57 saw Blanchflower pull on the United shirt just 11 times (0 goals) in defence of their crown with another Busby Babe, Mark Jones, keeping him out of the side. However, his 11 starts in the red of United were enough to give him his second English First Division League Championship winners’ medal. Jackie also made two appearances in the European Cup that season making his European debut for United at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid on 11th April 1957 when United faced the reigning Champions of Europe, Real Madrid in the semi-finals. The Spanish aristocrats containing Alfredo Di Stefano, Francisco Gento and Raymond Kopa were simply too strong for United on the night and deservedly took a 3-1 lead to Old Trafford for the second leg. Having played their three previous home games in the European Cup at neighbour’s Manchester City’s home ground, Maine Road (Old Trafford did not have any floodlights), an expectant crowd of 65,000 crammed into Old Trafford on 25th April 1957 hoping their heroes could turn around the two goal 1st leg deficit and ensure that a new name would be engraved on the trophy. Alas, the task presented to Jackie and his team-mates on the night was simply too much for them as they could only manage a 2-2 draw to go out of Europe at the first attempt on a 5-3 aggregate loss. Real Madrid went on to retain the European Cup and were such a formidable side at the time they won the trophy five years in succession. However, Busby now had a taste for European football and was far from finished in his ambitions in claiming European football’s most coveted prize of all for Manchester United. Incidentally, the first game played at Old Trafford under floodlights came exactly one month before United’s exit from Europe, a 2-0 loss to Bolton Wanderers in Division One on 25th March 1957, a game in which Irishmen Blanchflower and Whelan both played.

Despite the fact that he did not play a major role in United retaining the First Division title in 1956-57, Jackie was called upon by Busby to help the team reach the FA Cup Final and attempt to become the first team to achieve the Double of League Championship success and FA Cup glory in the same season. He played in United’s 2-0 FA Cup semi-final victory over Birmingham City at Hillsborough, Sheffield and kept his place for the final versus Aston Villa. In the sixth minute of the 1957 FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium the Manchester United goalkeeper, Ray Wood, collected a cross into his box but when the ball was in his arms Villa striker Peter McParland forcefully barged into him with all his body weight resulting in Wood being knocked unconscious and breaking his cheekbone. When Wood was stretchered off for treatment by the St John’s Ambulance men Jackie’s versatility was put to the sternest of tests when he took over in goal for his injured team-mate. At the time substitutes were not allowed but 10-man United held out well and kept their rivals, nicknamed The Villains, scoreless at the half-time whistle. Luckily for Busby he allowed Jackie to play a full 90 minutes in goal during their Tour of Scandinavia the previous May with the Ulsterman helping United to a comprehensive 5-1 win over Helsingborg. Jackie made a number of fine saves from the Villa players before finally conceding the opening goal of the game in the 68th minute of play when the villain himself, McParland, found the back of the United net. Woods, with a bandage wrapped tightly around his face re-entered the field of play taking over Jackie’s position on the pitch. McParland added a second goal in the 73rd minute and when Tommy Taylor pulled a goal back for United with only seven minutes remaining Wood went back into nets allowing a fresh Blanchflower to try and help United grab the equaliser. Alas, Villa held out and claimed the FA Cup for the seventh, and last time, in their history whilst it would be another 37 years before United had a shot at winning the coveted Double again. As pointed out by Iain McCartney in his book (Irish Reds, Britespot Publications, November 2002) Blanchflower’s stint in goal has thrown up a trivia question which has left many a Manchester United fan baffled: “Who is the only outfield player to wear a cap during a competitive game for Manchester United?” The answer is of course Jackie Blanchflower who not only wore Ray Woods’s goalkeeper’s jersey during the 1957 FA Cup Final but also wore his cap to keep the sun out of his eyes when going for crosses into his penalty area.

Jackie partnered the magnificent Duncan Edwards at centre-half for the opening 10 games of the 1957-58 season, the team winning 6, drawing 1 and losing 3. Both he and Duncan were rested for United’s following game before the pair returned to the side playing a further 8 times together all in succession, winning 4, drawing 1 and losing 3. Jackie’s 18 League appearances would have been significantly more had it not been for what happened on a fateful night in Munich, West Germany on 6th February 1958. He suffered horrendous injuries including a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, severe kidney damages, a severed arm and many other fractures to his battered body. Jackie almost missed the trip to Belgrade and was only declared fit the day before the team set off and travelled as back-up to Mark Jones.

Amazingly, the spirited Jackie Blanchflower fought back from the horrific injuries he sustained in the Munich and was on the verge of making a return when medical specialists broke the news to him that his body simply was incapable of coping with the pressures of competitive football. By this stage the mental scars were also proving almost impossible for him to bear. In June 1959, aged just 26-years of age, he was forced to retire. And so we will never know just how good a footballer he would have become, or what other glories he would have achieved with a United team which was on the verge of becoming the first English team to achieve the Double in 1957-58 and perhaps with it the most prized trophy of them all, the European Cup. In the end the injuries Jackie sustained in the Munich Air Disaster brought a very premature end to what looked like being a very promising career. Jackie’s last ever game for United was their 4-3 loss to Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on 30th November 1957. In all he played 116 times for United and scored 27 goals; 105 League games (26 goals), 6 FA Cup games (1 goal) and 5 European Cup games (0 goals).

Jackie Blanchflower made his international debut for Northern Ireland on 21st March 1954 away to Wales in a qualifying game for the 1954 Fifa World Cup Finals in Switzerland. His older brother, Danny, also played in the game which the Irish won 2-1. Jackie went on to win a further 11 international caps for his country scoring once, finding the net whilst playing up front in a 2-1 win over Scotland at Windsor Park , Belfast on 8th October 1955. His 12th and last cap for Northern Ireland came against Italy on 15th January 1958 in a qualifying game for the 1958 Fifa World Cup Finals in Sweden. The Irish were at their Windsor Park home and cheered on by a fanatical home crowd they won 2-1 which proved to be a crucial victory that helped them secure their long awaited first appearance at a World Cup Finals tournament. The Blanchflower brothers celebrated the team’s victory well into the night but unknown to them at the time, it would be the last time they ever played together for their country and it also marked Jackie’s last ever competitive game of football, coming just 22 days before the Munich Air Disaster. When he realised that he would no longer be able to earn a living as a professional footballer Jackie took on a succession of jobs, all in the Manchester area, but these occupations were a long way from replacing the excitement he felt running out at Old Trafford before an adoring crowd. Many writers have commented on how Jackie became very bitter when injury forced him out of the game in June 1959, but how many of us if faced with a similar challenge of rebuilding our lives would have been stronger? After all the Munich Air Disaster had not only ripped the heart out of Manchester United but it literally ripped out Jackie’s heart in the process, falling out of love with football which was all he had ever lived for since kicking a ball about as a young boy with his brother and other kids on the back streets of Belfast. Jackie took over the running of a sweetshop near his home in Manchester and not long afterwards a supermarket opened around the corner forcing him to close. He then decided to take up an offer to work for a local Turf Accountant but when horse-racing was so hard hit one winter because of extremely poor weather conditions the bookmaker had to let him go. Following the latter role he decided he would become a pub landlord and after only two weeks into his tenure the Government introduced the breathalyser test. A job working in a print factory followed before he was made redundant in 1976 and he then accepted a job as an accountant but that failed to change his run of bad luck when his posts as finance officer for a Youth Association and as a company accountant ended in him being laid-off.

However, things at long last seemed to turn around for the better for Jackie after his wife, Jean, decided to resume her singing career in the late 1980s. Jean was a successful night club singer during the 1950s in Manchester appearing on stage with the Vic Lewis Big Band. When Jean returned to the cabaret stage she took Jackie along with her and soon he found himself stood in front of the microphone introducing his wife to the audience. Jackie was a natural in front of the mic and the crowd loved his soft Irish brogue and humour. It wasn’t long before Jackie soon carved out a new career for himself as a successful after dinner speaker who was in high demand at Sportsman’s Dinners. Not long before his death he managed to put his dark days in the wake of the Munich Air Disaster behind him when he spoke about his Manchester United career saying: “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. I feel happy and at ease now.” Sadly, Jackie lost his battle with cancer on 2nd September 1998 and died aged 65. Tributes poured in following his death with former team-mate and Busby Babe Bill Foulkes said: “Jackie was a brilliant footballer, capable of filling in for Duncan Edwards in midfield and Tommy Taylor in attack. He was a fun-loving character, a little bit more outgoing than his brother Danny. He was a first-class man and footballer. He will be sadly missed.” Meanwhile his close pal and international team-mate, Billy Bingham paid his own tribute to his lost friend: “We lived in the same district of Belfast and both played for Orange Field Star, a local team which Jackie’s mother ran. We played schoolboy internationals together and though our careers took different paths we always came together for Northern Ireland games.”

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