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Pointy-chinned (and formerly bearded) English football pundit.
A figure who most football fans love to hate and disagree with. Chairman of Coventry City football club.
Popular target of British impressionists due to his distinct vocal style.

Inexplicably became a synonym for disbelief when I was a kid in the 70s. If someone told you a preposterous story you'd stroke your chin and say slowly "Jimmy Hill" or "Jimmy".

The Jimmy Hill revival starts here!

Forget the chin, the goatee, the off-the-mark comments. Get the real Jimmy Hill deal - the player, PFA chairman, manager, TV bigwig, linesman, managing director, and TV presenter.

The train to Reading, to train.

Jimmy Hill's footballing career began at Elm Park, Reading. While in the army, Hill had been noticed by the Reading manager, Ted Drake, who suggested he would be welcomed if he popped down to Reading sometime. After Hill left the army, and packed in the struggling Stock Exchange, he took the train to Reading, thinking he might improve his fitness with a week's training there. Six months later, having played mainly for the club's third eleven, and occasionally for the combination side (reserves), he was told, much to his surprise, that Reading didn't want to sign him as a professional. Surprise not because he thought he'd done well, but because at the time he wasn't planning to turn professional, preferring to keep amateur status, and earn his keep outside the game.

Brentford Boy

Drake's rejection, however, rekindled Hill's ambition to become a professional. The Reading boss told him a London club were interested in having a look, so off Hill went to Brentford, where he met Jack Gibbons, Brentford's manager, and was promptly offered a contract, for a princely £7 a week during the season, and £5 a week during the summer. Hill signed, and started the new season as a second division striker.

West End Boy

In 1952, Hill signed for Fulham, where he made just under 300 appearances before retiring, in 1961, at the age of 33. A versatile midfielder, Hill made his name on the field as a hard working rather than spectacular player. Nonetheless, he scored a club record 5 goals in one away game. During his time at the club, he played alongside some great names in English football: Bobby Robson, Johnny Haynes, and George Cohen all played for Fulham during Hill's stint at Craven Cottage. But it was off the field that Hill began to make his mark, and changed the face of the English game.

Sunderland Scandal Shocker!

From 1957 until 1961, Hill was Chairman of the Professional Footballer's Association (PFA), a role he carried off with some relish, being variously described as 'the bold buccaneer', and 'the beatnik with the ball'. Shortly after Hill took on the role, he was confronted with the issue of Sunderland players who had allegedly been receiving dodgy payments in addition to their capped salary. The Football Association (FA) issued a life ban for the players after they refused to answer questions on the subject, but the PFA, and Hill, defended the players. Taking a gamble on there being many other players in a similar position, the PFA petitioned its members to come forward if they too had received illegal payments, in the hope that many would own up, and that the FA could be made to back down. The PFA won, and the players were reinstated with a suspension and a fine. This, too, was later revoked.

In the days before footballers were overpaid

At this time, professional players were under the yoke of a maximum wage, and restrictions on bonuses and benefits in kind. Also, under the Retain and Transfer system operated by clubs, the clubs had all the contractual bargaining power, the players none. Hill and his PFA panel changed all this.

In 1960, the PFA challenged the Retain and Transfer system, opting to take legal action when George Eastham was refused a transfer by his club, Newcastle United, and the FA had failed to help the player. Eastham was successful, and he was able to move to Arsenal. The following year, a strike ballot was called, against the maximum wage. Unanimously, the players voted in favour of striking. At the time, the maximum wage was £20 a week, up from £15 in the mid 1950s, and associated benefits were paltry - the maximum win bonus was a stunning £2, and had been for 16 years, while 5 years service would net a player £750. In 1939 the figure had been £650, only £100 less. The FA caved, and the maximum wage was abolished. Johnny Haynes, Hill's former Fulham colleague, and now England captain, was among the first to benefit, becoming the first footballer to earn £100 a week. Thanks to Jimmy Hill, the footballer's lot had improved substantially.

In 1961, after Tottenham Hotspur had become the first club since Aston Villa in 1897 to win the double (League champions and F.A.Cup winners in the same season), their manager Bill Nicholson was unable to pay them bonuses for this remarkable achievement, and even had to get the FA's express permission to give each player a watch as a bonus payment. Now, however, the big clubs could retain their star players, and attract new talent, by fattening their pay packets. And they could afford to. As Hill explains:

"What we fought for then was the right of a player to be paid in proportion to what he earned for his club and I still stick to that."¹

Sending Jimmy Hill to Coventry (1961-1967)

Having secured a better life for the players, Hill promptly retired and took the post of manager at the then lowly Coventry City. In six years at Highfield Road, Hill took the club from the wrong end of the third division, through the second division, and into the top flight.

As if all that promotion wasn't enough, Hill also changed the club's home strip to sky blue (surely a popular choice, as the clubs nickname is now "The Sky Blues"), and provided pre-match entertainment for the fans, and crisps and soft drinks for children. For away games, Hill introduced special trains to take away fans to matches. Hill the lyricist also made his mark on the Sky Blues, penning the words to the Sky Blues Song:

"Let's all sing together,
Play up Sky Blues,
While we sing together,
We will never lose.
Tottenham or Chelsea,
United or anyone,
They shan't defeat us,
We'll fight till the game is won."

Moving on...

On the Box

Like so few before him, but so many since, Hill saw the lure of television, and left Coventry immediately having taken them to the first division, to take up the post of Head of Sport at London Weekend Television (LWT). In 1972, he became Deputy Controller of Programmes. Also in 1972, Hill added another string to his footballing bow when he stepped in as a replacement linesmanfor a match he was providing television coverage for at Highbury. In 1963, the BBC poached him to present their flagship football programme, Match Of The Day. Hill appeared on the programme more than 600 times. He has also worked on the Sports Personality of The Year awards, and has worked as a presenter or analyst on every world cup since 1966, and on every European Championship from 1968 to 1996.

Hill has been presenting football programmes for Sky since the start of the 1998-99 season. Initially, he fronted "The Last Word", and now heads up "Jimmy Hill's Sunday Supplement".

Hill has also been known to make the occasional TV commercial, appearing in adverts for Sunday People (1998), McDonalds (2000) - Hill the old man decked out in full kit turns out to have lost some of his physical ability, with the tagline "If only all comebacks were as good as this", to advertise the return of the McRib - and Heineken (2001), and providing a voice over in an advert for McVitie's Jaffa Cakes (1998).

Coventry, again. Fulham, again.

Hill's return to Coventry City as managing director in 1974 was less successful, An attempt to turn Highfield Road into an all-seater stadium in 1981 backfired as attendances dropped dramatically. When visiting Millwall fans ripped out most of the seating, the club decided to go back to the terraces. Hill also returned to Fulham, as Chairman, helping (or perhaps observing) the team through some pretty rough times in the early 1990s, when the club had dropped to one place off the bottom of the league.

Chin! Chin! mate.

Never one to shy from an opinion - and I'm sure even Jimmy would admit that he's not always right, and I remember one particularly ill-advised comment about "African defenders" being hopeless - his impact on the sport is sadly often overlooked. This was certainly true when I was at school. Rather than discussing the pros and cons of the maximum wage structure and restrictions on benefits in kind for professional footballers in the 1950s, we would stroke our chins in homage to the great man whenever anyone said anything patently untrue.


1. Quote taken from http://www.adhoc.co.uk/cambridge/healthfitness/?article=891

Sources:

  • http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/in_depth/2000/sports_personality/1023114.stm
  • http://www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/news/news6.htm
  • http://www.martinwildig.com/skybluesong.htm
  • http://home.clara.net/sjafn/jimmyhill.htm
  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/coventry/sport/clubs/coventrycity_fc/coventry-city-history.shtml
  • http://www.givemefootball.com/html/pfa14j.stm
  • http://www.toffs.com/forums/newsGetMessage.asp?ID=1394
  • http://www.adhoc.co.uk/cambridge/healthfitness/?article=891

Channel 4 showed a documentary on Jimmy's career on Tuesday 3 September 2002 (two days ago at the time of posting). I missed it because... I was noding Jimmy at the time. Now, if that isn't irony...

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