Tuesday, 29 December 2015

2015 In Memoriam: Jimmy Hill

18th December 2015 – Jimmy Hill, 87

How do you begin to describe Jimmy Hill?

He was a football pundit, and one of the best. But he was also a football manager, a football club owner, a former player, a linesman when needed. He coached players, lead trade unions, worked behind the cameras at TV. He also helped change the rules and laws of the games, for spectators and players alike, across the entire world.

In short, he was a pioneer.

One of a handful of men you could say legitimately changed the world game.

But where to start?

A youth career at Brentford might be a decent starting place – Jimmy played over eighty times for them before a transfer to Fulham in 1952. He played for Fulham until 1961, and it was there he became head of the PFA (The Professional Footballers Association) and began his first big campaign.

In the 1950s, football still had a maximum wage. £20 a week was the maximum in those days, the equivalent of minimum wage in 2010, and it was such that most footballers needed full time jobs to go alongside their careers. Hill hated the idea that business men could make mass profits from the game, but those who played it would just have to make do.

“He railed against the injustice of never earning more than £20 per week despite being part of a hugely profitable entertainment industry. He saw the maximum-wage rule as tyranny, vowing to oppose it with every means at his disposal, and in doing so successfully he laid the financial foundations of the modern game. Hill was a born orator, persuasive, eloquent and logical, and he flexed his muscles impressively when defending Sunderland players accused of breaking feudal regulations over so-called illegal payments. Then, in the wage war which followed, he reached new heights. Marshalling his forces brilliantly and tapping into the deep well of grievance which had built up among his fellow professionals, he bombarded the authorities with irrefutable arguments. At first it seemed as if he could never prevail against the draconian, all-powerful League mandarins, and there were times when it seemed the will of his members would buckle against the weight of tradition. But Hill was indomitable and he outflanked the enemy with the threat of a strike, which was averted with three days to spare in January 1961.His victory, which meant players could negotiate their own deals, rocked the game to its Victorian foundations and led three years later to the abolition of the archaic retain-and-transfer system, which allowed a club to control the future of a player once he had signed a contract, even when the contract had elapsed.”
Ivan Ponting, Jimmy Hill: Visionary football manager whose greatest legacy was abolition of sport’s maximum wage, Independent 20 December 2015

That Wayne Rooney now earns more in a month than the annual GDP of some countries is neither here nor there. (And frankly, if United are idiotic enough to offer Rooney £350k a week well past his best, he’d be an idiot to turn that down, but that’s another story...)

Jimmy Hill retired from playing football in 1961. So that’s the end of the story, right? Not a chance.

Directly upon retiring, he applied for and become manager of Coventry City, who were languishing in the old third division. Hill took Coventry from struggling in the third division to the top flight within six years. That in itself is remarkable enough.

However, what he did at Coventry City was to entirely change the club, and indeed, football. For one thing, he changed their stripes to their now ubiquitous Sky Blue. He got the players to do media interviews, and started the post-match manager press conference. He let TV cameras into the ground to record highlights, created family days to encourage children at football grounds. He also brought in the first electronic scoreboards, and the first mascots.

Yes, I suppose in a way, you can blame Kingsley on Jimmy Hill.

“When we look at the timeline of evolving management methods, the 1960s throws up men such as Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Bill Nicholson, Jock Stein, Don Revie, Harry Catterick and the young, thrusting Brian Clough. But it was debatable whether any of them was quite as pioneering as Jimmy Hill, installed as Coventry City's manager four days after the King's Lynn humiliation, on 29 November 1961. He promptly disregarded the Football League's ban on players talking to the press, and recognised the need for all kinds of public-relations initiatives that are commonplace now, but were startlingly revolutionary then. He changed the kit, putting his players into matching shirts and shorts before anybody else had thought of such a thing, and then, with the support of Robins, got down to some serious Sky-Blue thinking. Radio Sky Blue was launched to entertain fans before kick-off; the Sky Blue Express train carried them to away matches. Not all his ideas came off, including his plan for a huge firework to be let off whenever the team scored at home (cruelly, the Sky Blues were thwarted by blue skies). But he was relentlessly entrepreneurial, and scientific too, the Arsène Wenger of his day, incorporating the body-rhythm theories of Sir Adolphe Abrahams, the founder of clinical sports medicine, into the club's training regime.”
Brian Viner, Independent 26 November 2011

The call of TV was too much though, and so, with Coventry in the top flight of English football, Jimmy Hill left in 1967 to move into the world of TV at London Weekend Television. Never letting an opportunity to pioneer go amiss, Hill suggested that what would really add spice to their upcoming World Cup coverage is if they used current and former footballers themselves as pundits on the matches.

“His career then took an unexpected turn when, quite to his surprise, he was asked to become head of sport at London Weekend Television. There Hill’s first task was to find something to broadcast, as all the principal sports were contracted to the BBC. The consequence was the introduction to television of darts and wrestling, as well as such oddities as artistic cycling and Canadian log-chopping.More significantly for the future coverage of football, for the 1970 World Cup Hill instituted the first panel of pundits – Malcolm Allison, Paddy Crerand and Derek Dougan – whose lively mutual animosity for the first time brought ITV more viewers than the BBC for the tournament. Although Hill was appointed LWT’s deputy controller of programmes in 1972, he was by then becoming better known as a forthright (if often verbose) analyst alongside Brian Moore on The Big Match. Hill’s experiences with the PFA had taught him the value of television exposure, and he became an accomplished self-publicist; on one occasion coming out of the stands at Highbury to deputise for an injured linesman.”
Telegraph obit

In 1972, however, he made the move to the show he became synonymous with: Match of the Day. He was football highlights in the UK. Jimmy as presenter would introduce, announce, analyse, criticise and applaud, often in the same sentence. In over 600 appearances on the show, Hill shaped opinions of the game through three decades. He was never one to sugar coat his opinions, and would often argue his point to the death with any guest who disagreed!

He wasn’t loved by all. He had a love-hate relationship with Scottish football fans (which he personally loved the pantomimist qualities of, given he had a great fondness for all things Scottish), especially after he wrote off Narey’s incredible 30 yard goal against Brazil as a “toe poke”. Sunderland fans weren’t too keen either, believing he’d orchestrated events to help relegated them in 1977. (Personally, I don’t believe Sunderland need help in being relegated, but that’s just me...)

However, his mind was as sharp as the best, and he was often proved to be on the right side of the analysis. Take, for example, his view, stated many times, that the English national team works best as underdogs, and that, the moment the press, fans and officialdom start beating the drums of wars and announcing themselves as world beaters, the pressure mounts too much on the players and they never achieve anything. (And yet, well into the 21st Century, no one seems to have learnt that lesson.)

He was also, tragically, spot on about the Hillsborough disaster.

Spectator safety had been first and foremost to his mind. Jimmy had looked into all-seater stadiums, and by 1981 Coventry’s Highfield Road was the first all-seater stadium in the country. However, few others wanted to take heed of the message. Hill (and several others like Brian Glanville, to be fair) had warned of the dangers of the stadiums, and there had been near misses throughout the 80s. Then The Valley Parade fire happened. Still, Hill warned, and like Cassandra was forced to see his worst fears realised.

On 15th April 1989, Jimmy Hill was at Hillsborough stadium, excited as he later put it for what was bound to be a great FA Cup semi-final between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool.

“He was an excellent communicator when there was a serious story around. We were both at Hillsborough on that fateful day which ended in tragedy. His summation of on that night’s Match of the Day of what happened remains a master-class in television journalism.”
Des Lynam, Telegraph 19 December 2015

Whilst certain politicians, police officers and press men worked together to slander dead children, Jimmy Hill was on national TV. “There’s no way that was hooliganism” declared Hill, before explaining in analytic detail how such a disaster would have unfolded if hooliganism was involved, and how he had seen things from his vantage point high in the stadium. Each point he made was later backed up by the Hillsborough Report, finally released in 2012. By that time, too many had chosen to believe a certain newspaper instead, and when the report did come out, Hill was too ill to see it.

He left the BBC in 1999 to join Sky, where he fronted their football discussion group, Sunday Supplement. It was a great cause of schadenfreude to see the aged Hill listen to a far younger journalist waffle on about the latest tabloid obsession in the game, before puncturing ego entirely with a kindly: “With all due respect, isn’t that rubbish?”

Sadly, no man can stop tempus fugit, and Jimmy Hill retired, for good, in 2007.

You can see how, in many ways, he entirely changed the world around him. 

However, there was one pioneering element left, and one which continues to split older, traditionalist fans. 

Bemused by the defensive tactics becoming common in the sport, Hill suggested that instead of the traditional 2 points for a win and 1 point for a draw, we should have 3 points for a win instead, so as to encourage teams going all out for victory. English football adopted it in 1981, other leagues followed over the next decade, and UEFA and FIFA adopted it in 1995. Some claim there’d be no changes if everyone still had two points per victory, but that is to only look at the surface detail – who knows how individual managers would have approached each game since without the change.

Jimmy Hill was one of those types who couldn’t walk down a street without coming up with a revolutionary idea for road crossings, shop frontages and a new flavour of ice cream. 

He was built full of ideas and a pioneering spirit which never truly left him. 

With his passing, the great innovator, speaker and even conscience of English football has left a massive hole in its game, but his legacy is everywhere. Without Jimmy Hill, the entire game would unrecognisable from its modern version.

Although Jimmy, you have to say, it was a hell of a toe-poke!

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