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Freelance Journalist Marcus Stead

It’s Time To Say, “Arise, Sir Jimmy Hill”

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The summer of 2000 was one of the most important periods of my life. This was the time when I was sitting my GCSE exams, an experience I’m glad to say I’ll never have to go through again.

I can remember the day of my first exam very well. Nearly 200 of us entered the school hall, and had been allocated a very old, wobbly wooden desk each, that had surely out-lived our sixteen years. I went to take my place, which would be my second home in the gruelling few weeks that lay ahead.

No sooner had I sat down than I noticed a piece of graffiti on the top of the desk that read in huge capital letters, “JIMMY HILL IS MY HERO”. I tried very hard not to laugh out loud – this wasn’t the time or the place, but it’s fair to say I came pretty close to being disqualified from my exams before they had even started. Just think, my life could’ve taken a completely different course if one of the invigilators had looked at me during that moment.
Yet it occurred to me that those words could have been inscribed several decades earlier. Certainly, the desk dated back to the 1960s (it had an inkwell), but it was a testimony to just how long the great man had been involved with the game.

Of course, Mr Hill is a national figure of fun, and the graffiti was undoubtedly intended as sarcasm, but if you take the time to look beyond the huge chin and daft bow ties, you find a man who has made an extraordinary contribution to the game in so many different capacities.

His playing career saw him make more than 300 appearances for Fulham, the most memorable of which saw him score five goals against Doncaster Rovers, but his achievements as a player pale in comparison to everything he has accomplished off the field that helped change the game for the better in so many ways.

In 1957, he became the chairman of the Professional Footballers Association, and campaigned for the abolition of the £20-per-week maximum wage. He headed an excellent campaign that was ultimately successful. It’s easy to scoff at the excesses of the Premier League, but if this campaign had failed all those decades ago, there would surely have been an exodus of talent away from the English league to just about anywhere. The consequences for the national game would have been devastating.

Even if he had faded from the public eye at this stage, the modern game would still owe him a huge debt of gratitude, but this was to be only the beginning of his contribution to matters off-the-pitch.

His spell as manager of Coventry City between 1961 and 1967 saw the team promoted from the third tier to the top flight, but that only tells part of the story. Once again, he was way ahead of his time. With the support of the club chairman, Derrick Robbins, he insisted that two sides of the Highfield Road stadium were completely rebuilt. He was also responsible for the first proper match day programme, and arranged for pre-match entertainment.

These changes may sound small by the standards of today, but he understood that this was a period when cinema, theatre and other forms of entertainment were becoming increasingly affordable for ordinary people, and football had to work harder to maintain the fans’ loyalty.
When he left the club in 1967, he moved to a role that would see him make yet more revolutionary changes to the way we watch football.

He took a job as Head of Sport at London Weekend Television, where he helped develop the legendary World of Sport, and persuaded Brian Moore to make the switch to television for the launch of The Big Match. Until this point, football on TV had always been rather earnest, worthy and slightly po-faced. The double act of Jimmy and Brian Moore changed all that, adding a touch of razzmatazz and fun to proceedings.

The challenge ITV faces when covering major international tournaments is much the same now as it was at the 1970 World Cup. The main challenge was, and is, to give the viewer a reason to put up with the adverts and choose their coverage over that of the commercial-free BBC. On this front, Jimmy worked his magic once again, when he assembled the first panel of analysts, carefully chosen because of their willingness to speak their minds and not hold back.

For a month in the summer of 1970, ITV viewers were treated to late-night football highlights in the company of “The Midnight Cowboys” consisting of Malcolm Allison, Bob McNab, Pat Crerand, Derek Dougan and several others, who provided entertaining and forthright analysis of the day’s action. It’s hard to imagine a set-up like this existing now, in an era when broadcasters are keen to stay on the right side of the governing bodies, and the pundits themselves don’t want to upset their friends in the game. This remains the only time ITV have beaten the BBC in the ratings at a major summer tournament.

Jimmy jumped ship to the BBC a few years later, and became the face of Match of the Day. Those of us who weren’t around at the time have recently been given the chance to enjoy those programmes on ESPN Classic. I don’t normally appreciate being lectured at in a schoolmasterly fashion, but his precise, sharp and to-the-point analysis of the matches they covered was refreshingly blunt.

He combined his broadcasting commitments with several directorships, which started with his return to Coventry City in 1975. In the last game of the 1976/77 season, he is said to have made Coventry City vs Bristol City kick off ten minutes late, thereby allowing them to know how their relegation rivals Sunderland were doing at Everton. Sunderland eventually lost the game 2-0. Both teams knew all they had to do to stay up was pass the ball around, and the final ten minutes descended into farce, with nobody making any effort at all to try and score.

Many Sunderland fans still haven’t forgiven him for this, as was evident when he attended their match against Fulham at Craven Cottage just last year, and needed a police escort to ensure his safety.

But was this really such a crime? Maybe there really was serious crowd congestion outside Highfield Road. If we want to make the final day of the season truly fair, maybe all TV, radio and telecommunication signals inside every football ground should be blocked, to stop teams playing for draws if they know an important fixture at another ground is heading for an extremely one-sided result.

Of course, that could never happen, but you know what I’m getting at.

In 1981 came more proof that he was an innovator, a man well ahead of his time. He turned Highfield Road into an all-seater stadium, on the grounds of safety and fan comfort. However, there was a backlash from the supporters, and after Millwall fans ripped out much of the seating, he reluctantly backed down and re-introduced terracing. Hull City fans hoping for a repeat of that precedent shouldn’t hold their breath. Jimmy was once again way ahead of everybody else, and after a pretty miserable decade for football, all-seater stadia became the norm.

Later that decade, he saved his beloved Fulham from extinction, before having the wisdom to sell up when someone with serious financial clout could lead them back to the top flight for the first time in three decades.

By the late 1980s, the television viewer demanded a more slick presentation style, and Des Lynam was installed as presenter of Match of the Day. Jimmy was moved to the role of analyst, where he formed a highly entertaining and much under-rated double act with Terry Venables. It appeared as though they couldn’t stand each other, but away from the cameras, nothing could have been further from the truth. The viewers loved it.

In his most recent role as presenter of the Sunday Supplement on Sky Sports, he often talked about how it would be a good idea to get more former players to become referees. This argument holds a lot of merit, and is likely to gain huge amounts of support from players and managers in the years ahead.

Yes, some people think he preaches too much, and he’s always been prone to the odd daft comment. But the real Jimmy Hill is an innovator, a maverick, and a rebel who repeatedly stood up to the men in blazers. Everyone in football, whether a player, manager, media personality and even ordinary fans owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Robson are both worthy recipients of their knighthoods, and it’s now time to add Sir Jimmy to that list.
Let us show him our appreciation for everything he has done for the game while he is with us to enjoy it. Football, and even the nation as a whole, would be in a far better state if there were more people around like him.

Written by Marcus Stead

November 5, 2011 at 2:44 am

Posted in Opinion, Sport

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