WHEN YOU think about TV football commentators and pundits, four names spring to mind, especially if your formative years fell between the mid-to-late 60s and the 70s: Kenneth Wolstenholme; Brian Moore; John Motson and…Jimmy Hill.
When we were kids, we would draw a crude sketch of Jimmy Hill: hair, eyebrows, moustache and beard. As a player, he resembled a beat club poet rather than a footballer: rakish beard, heavy head of hair, the occasional hat and the pipe.
You didn’t always agree with what he was saying, but there could be no denying that Hill was a ground-breaker in the way he looked at the game. Indeed, he had been an innovator, barrier-removing manager and administrator earlier in his career.
A lot of people have forgotten – outside of Coventry, that is – how he changed Coventry City and led them to the old first division. It’s arguable that without Hill, the Sky Blues would not have tasted football at the top level. Fulham will also be saddened by Hill’s passing after a seven-year battle with dementia.
The first time I met Jimmy Hill was in 1970 as he signed my Chelsea programme when he was covering a match for London Weekend Television with Brian Moore. “Mr Hill, will you sign, please,” I asked. “Of course, son,” he said. “You should win today,” he added, shortly after climbing onto the gantry that used to hang below Chelsea’s West Stand.
Thirty-five years later, in 2005, Jimmy Hill was a special guest at a Chelsea Centenary event at the Chelsea Hospital. Amid the splendour of that historic home of the Pensioners, Hill co-hosted a reunion of the Chelsea 1955 title-winning team. Hill was a contemporary of many of that side.
Hill spoke of a gentler era and of the star names of that period – including Tom Finney, who sat close to my table. Hill was also acknowledged for his part in the abolishment of the maximum wage with a round of applause.
After an excellent event, I spoke briefly to Hill, and he passed me the old Football League Championship trophy. “Splendid, isn’t it,” he said to me. “Yes, much more dignified than the Premier trophy (which stood alongside it),” I replied. “That’s the first time you’ve had your hands on that, Jimmy,” joked one of the 1955 team (I think Charlie Thomson).” Hill, his trademark beard gone and chin withered by time, liked that comment.
Many of the elements we take for granted today in football owe their roots to Hill and his ideas. But his way was overtaken by the current trend of filling TV with former professionals, many reluctant to criticise the game that used to feed them. To some extent, that’s a shame.
Hill had a big impact on the game of football, and for that we should be thankful.