Rhythm and Drumbeats
The unlikely friendship between Danny Blanchflower and the music theorist Hans Keller
Charming, waspishly outspoken and creative, Tottenham Hotspur’s 1961 Double-winning captain Danny Blanchflower was arguably the most beguiling free thinker in the history of British football. One of only three celebrities to refuse to appear on This Is Your Life (and even his fellow rebels Bill Oddie and Richard Gordon eventually agreed to be the subject of the ‘red book’), the individualistic Ulsterman’s obsessive pursuit of knowledge and interest in other cultural fields was well known within football.
Blanchflower’s love of classical music saw him strike up an unlikely friendship with the Austrian-born British musicologist and football fanatic Hans Keller, who was a regular at Tottenham and West Ham United matches in the early 1960s. “To some, we were unlikely chums,” Keller said. “But what we both had were disparate interests, and we looked at things from different perspectives.”
Caustic and deadpan, Keller, a provocative music writer, critic and analyst of Britten, Stravisnky and Haydn, was also a prolific football writer for publications including the Spectator and the Times. He shared Blanchflower’s ideal that, at its heart, football was about creativity and independence. Railing against “the increased systemisation of football in the early 1960s” – as Keller put it – he believed that Tottenham, West Ham and Manchester United were the last in a dying breed of teams that “respected and entertained their audiences.” The middle section of Blanchflower’s most famous bon mot: “The game is about glory. It is about doing things in style, with a flourish…” mirrored Keller’s views on music and football. Yet by the end of the 1960s both men’s romanticised view of football was at odds with the harsh new world; Busby’s United and Nicholson’s Tottenham were in (relative) decline while well drilled and hard edged Leeds and Arsenal sides were now in the ascendancy. The ‘fallacy’ which Blanchflower referred to – that “the game is first and last about winning” was grim reality.
As youngsters, football represented a form of escapism for both men. Once after reprimanding her son, Selina Blanchflower discovered her toddler perching precariously on a window sill, watching local children having a kick around in the street. From that point on, young Danny was hooked, and he – along with brother Jackie who later survived the Munich air crash – was a fixture in the impromptu matches on the Belfast streets. Blanchflower’s family moved around the city a lot to fit around his father’s work, living in a series of small and crowded houses. “Playing football was my sanctuary,” Blanchflower later commented. “It gave me space, an opportunity to let off steam, to think and to be.”
Keller, born in 1919 into a musical and artistic family in Austria, became drawn to the fortunes of Hakoah Vienna, an all-Jewish football team, which drew huge crowds in the Austrian capital. He witnessed at first hand the anti-Semitic attacks carried out by the Nazis and their followers after the annexation of Austria in 1938. Keller reflected, “If I had not witnessed that, one would not be aware of what human beings are capable of.” Hakoah were immediately shut down by the Nazis and Keller emigrated to London later that year, intending to live life to the full. “Whenever there is reason to be in a bad mood,” Keller said, “the result is that I have a grateful elation about being alive. I escaped the jackboot and the tyranny and the Nazis. I was lucky. I was one of the fortunate ones.” Always a free spirit, his Vienna experiences gave him a lifelong loathing of authority, orthodox thinking, conventional wisdom and following the herd. “In all walks of life,” Keller explained, “one must strive to be an individualist.” Little wonder that Keller later cited his favourite footballers as Blanchflower and George Best.
By the mid-1950s, the chain smoking, moustachioed Keller was a regular at Upton Park and White Hart Lane, and in his capacity as a football writer, mixed with players and journalists alike. He met Blanchflower, who was seven years his junior, shortly after he’d signed for Tottenham in 1954. By this time, Keller was writing up to seven articles a week for a raft of newspapers and magazines, becoming – among other accomplishments – the first non-medical expert to contribute to the Journal of British Psychology. He was also music adviser to the British Film Institute (BFI). But it was his development of, and willingness to discuss, "wordless functional analysis" (abbreviated by the Keller to "FA"), which piqued Danny Blanchflower’s interest.
Keller’s belief was that the rich “foreground diversity” of a piece of music had to be “unified at a background level for the piece of music to work.” Blanchflower believed that Keller’s “FA” philosophy could be applied to football. “Hans analysed football in a particular way. He wanted to see something with rhythm and drumbeats and excitement. He was also very conscious that you can drill people into doing certain things like you do in the army but you don’t get the best out of their talents,” Blanchflower explained on the Keller Instinct, a Channel 4 documentary broadcast in 1986, shortly after Keller’s death from motor neurone disease. Blanchflower later added, “In music, he sought to incorporate strongly contrasting ideas and sounds and approaches and the different personalities – if you will – of the instruments, yet still somehow produce an experience of unity and coherence. I think any football manager would tell you that they grapple with that tactical issue every day – how to mould dozens of different variables into a cohesive unit that works effectively.”
Keller’s FA philosophy was developed alongside a theory that explicitly considered musical structure from the point of view of listener expectations. “Hans believed that in any form of culture, the perspective from a listeners’ or readers’ or spectators’ viewpoint was often overlooked. I certainly felt that was the case in my field – football.” Blanchflower wasn’t the first leading figure in British football to ponder the need to incorporate flair and artistry within a successful team – Chapman and Busby had also mulled over the issue at length – but Blanchflower was arguably the most articulate and dogged. Both Blanchflower and the new Tottenham manager Bill Nicholson agreed that Spurs had a duty to entertain their fans.
Pre-Tottenham, Blanchflower had struggled to find a kindred spirit within the game. Barnsley and Aston Villa weren’t exactly replete with Keller and Nicholson clones. Prior to embarking on a professional football career, he’d trained as an RAF navigator and had studied maths, physics and kinetics. “Kinetics was the science of motion. Our lecturer always told us to apply it to other areas of our lives as well. I applied it to football, because for me, the best football teams are the ones in which the component parts have mastered movement of themselves and the ball,” Blanchflower explained.
There was precious little movement of the ball at Barnsley, where players were asked repeatedly to lap the Oakwell pitch and informed by manager Angus Seed that training with the ball “would wear them out for Saturday.” After moving to Aston Villa in 1951, Blanchflower urged teammates to switch from a traditional long ball game to the “push and run” style which Arthur Rowe’s Tottenham had used to win the league in 1951. His pleas fell on deaf ears. “Just being at Villa was a privilege itself. I was a banana case wanting to change things; a round peg in a square hole,” he said. In 1954, Blanchflower arrived at White Hart Lane following a huge £32,000 transfer and was the crucial link between Rowe’s ’51 title winning team and Bill Nicholson’s ’61 Double side.
After taking over at White Hart Lane in October 1958, Nicholson worked tirelessly to ensure that struggling Tottenham’s prodigiously gifted individuals worked as a cohesive unit. This was Nicholson applying Keller’s Functional Analysis (albeit unwittingly) to his club, and attempting to achieve a winning rhythm. Ironically, Nicholson initially chastised Blanchflower for losing the ball too much during matches: “You’re taking too many liberties. When the ball is played into our box you’re often on your way out looking for a throw from the keeper. You should be in that box marking someone and doing your defensive job.” By the start of the 1960-61 campaign, Nicholson had moulded his Tottenham players into a superb team, which became the first club to win the League and Cup Double in the 20th century.
Hans Keller approved, commenting: “For me, Tottenham are the equivalent of an orchestra playing at perfect pitch – individually brilliant, allowed to express themselves, but also able to work towards the same goal. One can have it both ways with Tottenham, by marvelling at men like [John] White and Blanchflower and [Bobby] Smith but also celebrating and revelling at their team success. They are wonderful.” Just to demonstrate that Blanchflower remained very much his own man, he refused to comply with Tottenham’s request that the club should vet his Sunday Express articles before they went to print. “As far as I know, no one at the club ever saw them beforehand,” admitted Nicholson.
After Blanchflower’s retirement as a player, he created a niche for himself as a journalist, and his column appeared for more than twenty years. His thoughts regularly mirrored those of Hans Keller. Blanchflower explained on the Keller Instinct, “He was also like I was against the attitudes of coaching, that people could be coached to do certain things.” In 1965, Keller commented in a radio interview, “I make a plea on behalf of talent and invention and individuals and the idiosyncrasies of artists, even their unruliness.”
Keller and Blanchflower were scathing in their criticism of Alf Ramsey and his England team. In October 1965, Keller wrote in the Spectator: “I am not saying that ‘we shall win the World Cup’ if we use all the real talent at our disposal: but we shall certainly lose it if we continue to depend on our hard-working non-entities.” Keller claimed that too often, the individual genius of great British players including Best and Jimmy Greaves was “sacrificed on the altar of the great inhibitor of talent: ‘team spirit.’” Keller claimed that this led to “The New Mediocrity,” which he didn’t simply confine to football.
Two weeks before the 1966 World Cup, he wrote in the Spectator: “Our World Cup hopes, such as they are, depend on Greaves the genius, and Bobby Charlton the steadier master.” Keller loathed the idea of teams being over-coached: “The prime danger of teaching is that the student is led to imitate the teacher instead of following his own personality. Therefore teaching has to aim at self teaching, and the student taking over at the earliest possible opportunity, otherwise what teaching results in is arrested development.” It was doubtful whether Alf Ramsey concurred with Keller’s caustic analysis.
After England lifted the Jules Rimet trophy, Blanchflower didn’t even damn England with faint praise, writing in the Sunday Express: “In intention England were as defensive as any team in the tournament. Persistence and stamina were the qualities that carried the team through. England endured.”
Years later, Blanchflower was asked whether he regretted the article. “I encourage players to play like I played,” he shrugged. “I felt that football in the late 1960s prioritised work rate over ability. It wasn’t my kind of football, and I didn’t think the ’66 legacy was a good one.” Hans Keller also despaired at footballers mutating into ‘robots’ at the end of the decade and contrasted the English approach with Brazil’s 1970 World Cup winners. In the Spectator, he wrote: “Don’t run. Show your fight in your brain and your ability. The stupidest sight is frontmen hectically pursuing a running, retreating defence. The Brazilians indeed walk, look and think where there is no need to dart. Then they explode.”
Blanchflower admitted that by the end of the 60s, “Hans and I were seen as being out of synch with modern football thinking. In a sense our views were considered a thing of the past.” Keller had already found that the same could be said of his views on music. In a surreal BBC2 interview with The Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and Roger Waters on The Look Of The Week show in November 1967, Keller spikily asked the amused and bemused musicians: “Why does it have to be so terribly loud?” after they’d played “Astronomy Domine” live in the studio. After Barrett argued that their music wasn’t always loud, Keller asked if the music was a form of “shock treatment” to their audiences, and whether The Pink Floyd felt “aggressive” towards their fans. Barrett and Waters refuted Keller’s suggestions and although the interview was a good deal more nuanced than critics suggest, Keller had unknowingly guaranteed himself a spot in TV’s hall of infamy. The satirical magazine Private Eye, connecting his love of both football and music, dubbed him, “Hans Killer, Professor of Soccer Hooliganism at the University of Schoenberg.” A raft of “TV’s Most Embarrassing Moments” themed shows have since portrayed Keller as being a slightly deranged dinosaur.
Blanchflower, who’d repeatedly insisted that he would never become a manager, endured the footballing equivalent of Keller’s “Pink Floyd–gate” at Chelsea in the late 1970s. There was little of the glory game evident at Stamford Bridge, with the Blues headed for relegation from Division One in front of ever shrinking crowds and labouring under enormous debts. Blanchflower attempted to introduce more of a passing game, but was unable to turn the situation around. “Danny was out of touch, had been out [of the game] too long,” Peter Osgood told Blanchflower’s biographer Dave Bowler.
“My methods take four or five years to develop,” Blanchflower wrote in the Sunday Express. “Who, in our football, dares to allow that?” Much of what Blanchflower said to the players – who simply weren’t of the same ilk as Tottenham’s ’61 Double winners – went over their heads, especially when he deployed music metaphors.
With one youngster all at sea after an instruction from his manager, Blanchflower told him, “‘A concert pianist sits at the piano and runs his hands up and down the keys. Five hours, every day. Very repetitive. Then he goes along to the concert, sits down to play and he’s perfect. Every time, that’s what I’m after.’ The lad just stared at me. I don’t know if I got through.” His ten-month tenure ended with defeat at home to Birmingham in September 1979, with Blanchflower reflecting, “[the players’] values aren’t the same as my values. And I’m not changing my values.” In 1967, Hans Keller had claimed. “Perhaps I’m a bit too much of a musician to fully appreciate [The Pink Floyd].” Blanchflower was far too much of a football purist to sort out Chelsea’s deep-rooted problems. He quickly sailed back to his “safe harbour” (as he put it) at the Sunday Express and was a regular at London football matches throughout the 1980s, before later suffering Alzheimer’s disease.
“It was not just the need to communicate,” Blanchflower said of his close confidante Keller’s raison d’etre “but the need to communicate something true.” Esoteric and decidedly left of field, Danny Blanchflower and Hans Keller ploughed their unique furrows in their respective fields. Bound by the often utopian belief that football and music must be both elevating and enriching, they became unfairly marginalised – ridiculed even – due to cultural social, and (in Blanchflower’s case), tactical change.