Jimmy Hill: A Life Less Ordinary

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Any awards ceremony carries a high risk of repetitive strain injury.

With spirits high in an atmosphere of celebration, applause is in such plentiful supply that the forearms ache long before the final winners stride onto the podium.

No such trouble at last night’s Football League Awards, when Jimmy Hill was thanked for his Contribution to League Football. Their enthusiasm undimmed by Lord Mawhinney’s fulsome paean, the audience rose as one to their feet as the visibly touched Hill took the stage.

But then, Jimmy Hill’s no ordinary man. Often there is a lingering suspicion over these “Legendary Lifetime” hall-of-fame awards, as if a committee decides it’s time to pay homage to Glen Campbell, Dickie Attenborough or Ennio Morricone, mainly for still being alive and active.

Not here. While each of those men has done some fine work, none has provided his field of entertainment with such all-round dedication, humour, insight and inspiration as Jimmy Hill.

Lord Mawhinney presents award to Jimmy 

It’s a pity that the younger generation think of Hill mainly as a figure of fun – be that light-hearted schoolyard jibes about his chin or the stronger, if playfully expressed, feelings prevalent in much of Scotland.

Although he’d readily admit to playing up to the image with his George Cross bow-ties and endless photo opportunities, Jimmy’s more than just the class clown. Clowns don’t lead unions into the abolition of wage restrictions.

Jokers don’t encourage attacking football by instigating three points for a win. Jesters don’t foresee all-seater stadiums way before the rest of football. And buffoons don’t get appointed Head of Sport by TV stations. (Well, maybe that one’s debatable, but you get the point.)

Fact is, Jimmy Hill has done more for football than he’s given credit for, because the breadth of his achievements is often barely credible in an era when having won a few caps seems to guarantee you an afterlife of sitting on sofas uninstructively pontificating to an unimpressed TV audience.

April 21 1956: Hill nips in before the Donny keeper 

In truth, Hill’s playing career wasn’t stellar. Although the former inside-right is proud of scoring five goals for Fulham at Doncaster, all but his last two seasons were spent outside the top flight.

By that time he was chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, spearheading their fight to abolish the £20 maximum wage. With a players’ strike threatened, in January 1961 the League agreed to scrap the limit – and football would never be the same again.

January 10 1961: Hill tells reporters players might strike 

Hill himself didn’t benefit from the abolition of the maximum wage: he retired that summer and hopped over the fence into management, taking over at Third Division side Coventry City that November.

On the field, Hill steadied the ship: Cov finished fourth in his first full season and won the title the following year before taking just three seasons to march to the Second Division title, too.

But it was off the field that Coventry really caught the eye. With a wide remit and a range of new ideas given the go-ahead by chairman Derrick Robins, Hill was in his element as a crowd-pleaser.

April 25 1964: Coventry are promoted (Hill second left) 

He introduced pre-match and half-time entertainment on the pitch, gave pop and crisps to kids, wrote a new club anthem, introduced sky-blue trains to away games and rode a horse around the pitch in full hunting gear.

Media-savvy and more comfortable in the spotlight than any previous manager, Hill loved it – and so did the fans, with 51,000 cramming into Highfield Road as City steamed toward the Second Division title.

And then, before they started their first-ever top-flight season, he was off.

Not to a bigger club, but to a different career: Head of Sport for London Weekend Television. In those days, that meant half of ITV, one of only two channels. Oh, and that same year he launched a magazine named after himself. Hard to imagine Mick McCarthy doing any of that.

October 26 1967: Hill reads his new mag with Tommy Docherty 

The innovations continued. While LWT’s Sunday highlights show The Big Match rivalled the BBC’s fledgling Match of the Day, Hill filled Saturday afternoon’s World of Sport with esoteric content from around the globe. And when LWT introduced games from Mexico 1970, the viewer saw a familiar face – and a new format.

Hill appointed himself presenter and created the panel format, inviting the great and the garrulous to exchange controversial opinions. It was an instant hit, and Hill’s TV career was under way.

He appeared on screen in a different guise in 1972, while watching Arsenal host Liverpool. Responding to a Tannoy appeal for a qualified official after the linesman succumbed to injury, Hill appeared on the touchline clad in a fetching sky-blue tracksuit and filled in for the stricken lino.

October 16 1972: Hill runs the line at Arsenal vs Liverpool 

After a brief spell as LWT’s Deputy Controller of Programmes, Hill switched sides to Match of the Day in 1973 and over the next 26 years went on to appear on the show 600 times, becoming a generation’s amusing face of football.

But Hill wasn’t content with merely reporting the news, when there was news to be made. Having returned to Coventry in 1974 as managing director, becoming chairman when Derrick Robins retired the following year, it was back to business.

Once again, Hill was thinking outside the box – controversially and not always successfully. When TV decreed that Coventry couldn’t wear sponsored shirts, he considered changing the club name to ‘Coventry Talbot’ before designing a kit which none-too-subtly incorporated the manufacturer’s ‘T’ logo.

It didn’t work and was also prohibited from broadcast games.

Besides being foresighted with sponsorship, by 1981 Hill had turned Highfield Road into the country’s first all-seater. The idea (and slogan) was that “You can’t be a hooligan sitting down”. Sadly, visiting Leeds fans agreed, ripping up the seats for use as missiles. Terraces were swiftly reinstated.

July 31 1981: Nice seats, shame about the shirts 

If it took a while for football to adopt all-seater stadia and widespread advertising, another of Hill’s notions took immediate hold.

In October 1980, a month after Stoke boss Alan Durban had defended his side’s negative attitude by saying “If you want entertainment, go and watch clowns”, Hill chaired a working party of club chairmen determined to halt sliding attendances.

Hill’s idea was simple: award three points for a win. The suggestion was adopted the very next season and spread across the world, especially after FIFA adopted it for USA 94.

Jimmy on MotD in 1982 – Click HERE to watch title sequence 

Hill left Coventry in 1983, although he remains a popular presence at the club. After a spell as chairman of Charlton, in 1987 he was back at Fulham, heading a consortium who saved the cash-strapped Cottagers from both bankruptcy and a proposed merger with QPR.

By this time, Hill was a pantomime villain to Scots, after describing David Narey’s long-distance goal against Brazil at Espana 82 as a “toe-poke”.

He did little to play down the animosity, wearing his patriotism proudly when England were covered on Match of the Day, to the displeasure of Scots paying licence fees to the British Broadcasting Corporation.

June 15 1996: Post-Narey Scotland fans make a point 

But then, Hill never claimed to be everyone’s cup of tea. No one who has done so much in so many different fields has gone through life universally adored, and Hill was prepared to upset people to do his job – whether stirring up a little controversy, revolutionising TV coverage or overturning archaic salary legislation.

It’s not been a bad career for a man who was mainly a second-tier player. Last night’s Championship Player of the Year Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, fine striker though he is, would be the first to admit that he has a long way to go to match the achievements of Jimmy Hill OBE, the groundbreaking union leader, coach, manager, director, chairman, TV executive, presenter, analyst… and emergency linesman.

March 29 2009: The great entertainer plays to the crowd

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