Jackie Blanchflower recollections - Belfast Irish News

'I've never got over it'    Blanchflower's Munich pain

TIME is supposed to be the greatest healer, but 40 years on Jackie Blanchflower has still not got over Munich.

The genial Irishman has learned to get on with life but will never fully accept what happened on that runway on February 6, 1958.

Before that day, Blanchflower was a defender with Manchester United, the finest team in England.

Just like in 1998, United were chasing the treble of the European Cup, League Championship and FA Cup.

Blanchflower would also have played in that summer's World Cup finals in Sweden with Northern Ireland. But in one instant, it was all gone.

Blanchflower's injuries brought a premature end to his career, and at the age of 24 he was left to piece together again what was remaining of his life. He died a different death to the 23 who perished in the snow.

"I've never got over it," he confessed. "It was around eight or nine months after the crash when they told me I couldn't play again.

"I went to see a specialist in London who told me to pack it in. It was shattering - I can't really describe it any better.

"My kidneys were what they were concerned about most and they felt I could damage them again if I played. I couldn't believe them at the time, but they were right.

"I've never got it right in my mind. You go through different phases. You look for someone to blame, which is the first one, then you get bitter. That eventually goes away and you're left with just cynicism.

"I can't say how it was for other people, but that's how it was for me. Now I try to cover it up with humour.

"I didn't get any counselling and ironically, when I was 54 and looking for a job, I applied for a job as a counsellor but they told me I had no experience or university training. That just made me more sceptical than ever."

Blanchflower had to find a new career for himself and tried several professions, and is now a regular on the after-dinner speaking circuit.

"I'd not made any plans and then there I was left on my own in the big, ugly world," he said. "I'd been cocooned playing football and then all of a sudden it was gone.

"I bought a newspaper shop, worked for a bookmaker, moved into a pub - they all lasted around five, six or seven years.

"Then I went back to school and became a finance officer, and I've finished up as an after-dinner speaker."

One of Blanchflower's biggest regrets is he was robbed of the chance to play on the world's greatest stage.

Northern Ireland qualified for the World Cup finals in Sweden for the first time and Peter Doherty's gallant side, containing the likes of Jackie's late brother Danny, Billy Bingham and Jimmy McIlroy, reached the quarter-finals, in which they lost 4-0 to Just Fontaine-inspired France.

Harry Gregg, another survivor of Munich, played in Sweden and Blanchflower still hurts when he looks back to that tournament. "That was the saddest part for me," he said. "I even dreamed we won it.

"Just Fontaine scored a couple of goals against the lads in the quarter-finals but I don't think he'd have done that if I'd played."

Blanchflower would surely have won more than his two League Championship medals if it had not been for the crash. Instead his brother Danny went on to realise his dreams of the Double and European glory.

Danny won the Double with Tottenham in 1961 and the European Cup Winners' Cup two years later as Spurs became the first British side to lift a European prize.

Jackie does not begrudge Danny his success, but feels he could have enjoyed similar glory with United.

"We could have done the Double in 1958, but of course Tottenham went on to do it in 1961," he said.

"I wonder, though, if they'd have done that if our team had still been playing.

"I also feel we'd have won the European Cup, if not that year then the year after.

"There was only really Real Madrid to rival us, but their team was getting old. But I was definitely not envious of Danny and all he achieved."

So how does Blanchflower feel now as the 40th anniversary of the day that changed his life forever approaches? "I can't say how I'll feel," he said. "There have been anniversaries before but obviously this is a more important one and a lot has been made of it.

"But while some people may think about it each February, I have had to live with it every day since."


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