Tuesday 20 February 2018

More than a pundit: Hill was a player, manager and visionary

Jimmy Hill on the set of ‘Match of the Day’ in 1973. Photo: PA
Jimmy Hill on the set of ‘Match of the Day’ in 1973. Photo: PA
Jimmy Hill playing for Fulham in 1958. Photo: PA

Ivan Ponting

Contrary to popular – but chronically misguided – belief, Jimmy Hill was one of the great achievers of English football: an enlightened, even revolutionary thinker consumed with phenomenal enthusiasm.

Yet frequently he was lampooned as a loquacious busybody with a ski-run chin, a wide-of-the-mark image fuelled by decades as a TV pundit during which his fearless, passionate, straight-talking style could stray, some would say, into the realms of self-righteousness and pedantry.

His most lasting legacy to the game for which he lived was his mammoth part in the successful crusade to abolish the maximum wage for footballers, an iniquitous anachronism which persisted into the 1960s. Certain modern stars who mocked Hill owed much of their personal prosperity to his pioneering efforts.

He was an exceptional manager too, leading Coventry City from the lower reaches of the Football League to its top flight before veering off the conventional path  – as was his wont – to become a ground-breaking broadcaster. True, his adoration of the limelight could be as irksome as it was transparent, yet he was, for all his immense ego and multiple eccentricities, a man who knew what he was talking about, and who had the good of the game at heart.

Hill grew up in wartime south London, the sparkily intelligent son of a baker, obsessed with football but not endowed with extravagant natural ability.

He was spotted by Second Division Brentford and, in 1949, began a professional playing career which owed more to effort than inspiration – but which was to last 12 rewarding years.

After a move to Fulham, it was Hill’s off-the-pitch activities which were of most significance. He became a fervent believer in the rapidly evolving practice of coaching, preaching its gospel at every opportunity and qualifying, an attainment which was to prove invaluable in later life.

It was his leadership of the Professional Footballers’ Association, which he chaired from 1956-61, which had the most dramatic impact. 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 he successfully laid the financial foundations of the modern game.

Hill was a born orator – persuasive, eloquent and logical. 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.

A knee injury forced his retirement as a player in spring 1961. He turned to football management after being offered a challenge he could not resist; that of transforming lowly Coventry City from Third Division also-rans into a major power.

When Hill breezed into Highfield Road in November 1961, the place was in the doldrums, the team drab and lethargic. What followed was little short of a sporting miracle. Hill thought big and possessed the priceless ability of being able to instil his confidence into those around him. Soon his side was revitalised, both by new recruits and a fresh approach.

Backed by Derrick Robins, a chairman both rich and bold, Hill made the club progressive and family-friendly at a time when such notions were unheard of. A marketer supreme, he cast away the old striped kit in favour of an eye-catching pale blue outfit. There followed an explosion of razzmatazz: a Sky Blue song, Sky Blue Radio, Sky Blue train specials to away games, Sky Blue children’s parties. Attendances rocketed, cash rolled in and the tatty old ground was rebuilt; many away games were screened on closed-circuit TV; the traditional matchday programme became a trendy magazine.

Hill was a symbol of a new footballing age and his team kept pace, lifting the Third Division title in 1964 and the Second Division title three years later. But then, on the threshold of the top flight, Hill dumbfounded the fans by resigning.

He felt capable of establishing the Sky Blues among the elite but believed it would be a lengthy process and requested the security of a 10-year contract. That was not forthcoming, and Hill bade farewell to his own astonishing creation.

In autumn 1967, having passed his screen test, as it were, working for the BBC during the 1966 World Cup finals, Hill became Head of Sport with London Weekend Television, which was due to start broadcasting in 1968. In five years with LWT he practically re-invented television football coverage, starting by fronting The Big Match, ITV’s Sunday afternoon answer to the BBC’s Match Of The Day. Until then, most on-air football criticism was mealy-mouthed and unopinionated.

Hill instituted the age of the pundit in a blaze of flamboyance and controversy, leading the way with his colourful World Cup 1970 panel, which featured passionate extroverts such as Malcolm Allison and Pat Crerand, and easily won the TV ratings war.

In 1973, having set up a consultancy group to negotiate sports sponsorship deals, Hill switched to the BBC – becoming front man and analyst on Match Of The Day, continuing to be forthright, and upsetting many in the process.

While still working for the BBC until he joined Sky Sports in 1998, Hill remained hugely active in football and business, from Fulham to Coventry to Charlton.

To any unbiased observer, British football has never known a more courageous, far-sighted reformer.

In 2013 it was revealed that he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for five years and had been living in a nursing home.

He was married three times and is survived by five children. He died on Saturday, aged 87. (© Independent News Service)

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