Monday 21 January 2019

Gentleman Jimmy's dignity will be missed

As player, manager or commentator, Armfield never lost his class

Jimmy Armfield. Photo: PA
Jimmy Armfield. Photo: PA

Paul Hayward

Any room at a football ground that contained Jimmy Armfield acquired an air of dignity. With him in place, the English game was sure of its foundations, and found a voice that was measured, modest and kind.

Armfield, who died yesterday aged 82, was one of the last connections to a time when football's idols survived World War II, saw national service and rose from working-class backgrounds to play for clubs in their communities.

None of this was, by itself, a guarantee of virtue, but in many respects it was a more appealing basis for the game than today's hyper-commercialised avarice.

Before Alexis Sánchez was wanted by Manchester United, Armfield was coveted by Matt Busby, but there the similarities end. Armfield played only for Blackpool, in 627 games from 1954-71, and won 43 England caps before managing Bolton Wanderers and Leeds and then forging a new career as an astute and unflappable commentator.

The voice that millions will remember mainly from BBC radio was the sound of a time when the personalities of great footballers were formed by more than wealth and celebrity. With a greater span of life experiences - many forced on them - Armfield's generation seemed more sure of who they were, or what they had come from, and that certainty furnished him with a voice that was calm and composed.

Instinctively, all who knew or worked with him knew they were in the presence of someone with gravitas; who could not be bounced into easy opinions or cheap polemics. With the microphone, Armfield felt no compulsion to speak for effect. He would consider the evidence and weigh his opinion.

In the delivery, he would be clear without ever straying into gratuitous denigration. In every word, you could hear him trying to understand it from the performer's point of view: a depth of empathy that said he had seen and felt it all himself as a player and a manager.

And he had. All players have a story, even modern ones. Armfield had a history. There was as much social history in his biography as sporting insight (and there was plenty of that). Until illness drew him away, we were sharing space with someone who remembered wearing a gas mask in wartime, was evacuated from Denton in Manchester to Blackpool, learned to play on the sands and answered to a father who was an air raid warden and grocer's assistant.

All this while being a bit of a scamp at school before an appetite for running became the basis for a football career helped along by time in the Army team with many of the Busby Babes.

Time is precious with someone who invented the role of over-lapping full-back while playing with Stanley Matthews, and who was England captain in the run-up to 1966, before injury and George Cohen's rise confined him to a squad role in the World Cup win over Germany. Armfield was remarkably sanguine about his absence from a defence that had become settled in his absence. Decades later he said: "I'n't it better that we won?"

By the law of opposites, it was appropriate that Armfield should take over from Brian Clough at Leeds, where he led them to a European Cup final. After the firebrand came the conciliator and listener. Later, management's loss was journalism's gain.

Acquiring wisdom from all eras, Armfield carried the essential lessons of football with him.

Whichever game he was looking at, he saw through hyperbole's fog to the mental and psychological challenges being faced out on the field. This acute recognition of what was going on in a game was a gift to listeners.

Perhaps nostalgia led many of us to see him as an exemplification of a time when footballers were recognisable, approachable and rooted in normal life. But he really was that man for all ages, for all parts of society, with the church organ as his soundtrack. He noticed the new brutalism, of course, but declined to place himself above it.

"All things change and invariably it has been for the better, and yet I believe I might've lived at the best time," was as far as he would go. There was no need for him to be trenchant. His wisdom and charm spoke more powerfully.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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