Jimmy Hill: Trailblazer who transformed lives of footballers
Late period as football pundit skewed the reputation of one of great football men
While Jimmy Hill’s football career recedes into a monochrome era of Woodbines and reinforced toecaps – he was a wing half, which tells you everything you need to know – his later role as a TV football pundit will be more readily recalled.
Hill, who died on Saturday aged 87, was the first former professional to do the job, a trailblazer as he was in so many areas of the English national game, and more forthright in his views than many of those who followed.
Not that this made him a national treasure. Jimmy wore hostility like a badge of honour. The current presenter of Match of the Day, Gary Lineker, told me about a match at Goodison, where Des Lynam and Alan Hansen were gently barracked, as is traditional, on their way to the TV gantry, but when Jimmy appeared the good-natured banter turned venomous. “Jimmy Hill, you’re a wanker, you’re a wanker” was the refrain. Jimmy turned to his colleagues, beaming. “There you are, that’s fame for you,” he said.
“To Jimmy, it was justification for what he did on TV,” Lineker told me. “He knew football, having had experience of every role in the game; fan, player, coach, chairman, director – he was a qualified referee for goodness sake – but he also knew television, and his view was there was no point in being mealy-mouthed. It wasn’t an act. He was passionate about the game and had strong opinions he believed in expressing. Sometimes, of course, they came from left of field.”
But not from the political left. If your experience of Jimmy on TV dates no further back than his latter days at the BBC – who terminated his contract amid some acrimony at the end of the 1990s – and his Sunday Supplement on Sky from 1999 to 2007, you may view him as a grumpy old man with values distilled in the 19th hole at a suburban golf club, a kind of Peter Alliss-lite.
That is not to say the Supplement was not enjoyable, like pretty well every project of Hill’s in 40 years of television. Admittedly, some of the fun came from Jimmy’s pretence that the Sunday morning paper review was broadcast from his lovely rural home. To foster this illusion, he used to introduce the commercial breaks saying he had to attend to some domestic duty, many of which seemed straight from a Carry On script. “Well, I’m off to peel the turnips now,” he would announce, or: “It’s high time I went and basted my meat.”
But late-period Hill misrepresents the man grievously. From a pretty decent footballing career with Brentford and Fulham, aided by a speed of thought not always present in his team-mates, through his successful campaign, as chairman of the PFA, to topple the feudal regime under which footballers were kept, his innovative management at Coventry City, and his time as head of sport at London Weekend Television from 1968 to 1972, Hill was nothing less than a revolutionary.
The effects of Jimmy’s revolutions in football and broadcasting are still being felt today. Take the panel of four outspoken pundits he introduced to ITV for the World Cup in 1970. Quite apart from its effect on football punditry, it’s a format that thrives more than 40 years later on programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing and X Factor.
Also at ITV he brought the much-loved Brian Moore, authoritative without being strident, to London Weekend, to commentate and to host On The Ball, a Saturday lunchtime football magazine show way ahead of anything the BBC was doing at the time. “We devised as many innovative ideas as possible to attract a young audience,” Jimmy wrote in his autobiography. “One idea was a penalty competition where kids took spot-kicks against professional goalkeepers,” a tradition that lives on in programmes such as Sky’s Soccer AM.
Under Hill’s stewardship World Of Sport, of blessed memory, was spruced up, too.
Away from TV, Hill’s innovations as manager of Coventry City in the 1960s – his espousal of all-seat stadiums and proper readable match programmes, and his rewriting of the Eton Boating Song as the Sky Blue Song – have passed into legend in that part of the Midlands (A statue of Hill at the Ricoh Arena was unveiled by the man himself in 2011).
What is less well advertised are Jimmy’s “pop and crisps” nights at Highfield Road, when he got his players to stay behind and sign autographs and hand out free snacks to hundreds of young fans.
Decades before fans’ forums, footballers’ Twitter feeds, and radio ’phone-ins, Jimmy was an advocate of interaction with fans, which did not always go as smoothly as Jimmy wished. In his early days on Match of the Day, he introduced a feature in which a supporter got to interview the manager of his club, but was requested not to ask anything too personal or controversial, a plan that was scuppered by the Spurs fan who kicked off his chat with then manager Keith Burkinshaw by asking: “Why, did you sell Pat Jennings to Arsenal? Why?”
Jimmy was what is sometimes described as “a real football man,” but he was a real TV man as well. He is undoubtedly godfather to Gary Neville, until this month making waves as a Sky analyst, as well as Lineker at the BBC.
“My first presenting job was the Euro ’96 highlights,” said Gary, “Jimmy was my pundit and he was hugely helpful to me. I was shaking like a leaf, of course, but he was very encouraging. He was totally involved in all aspects of the programme, and gave me lots of advice, some of which was obvious, some not, telling me to slow down, when to listen more, that kind of thing.”