Jimmy Hill has been at the forefront of the evolution of post–war British football. Barney Ronay reviews the Hill effect

Picture the scene: four middle-aged men are seated around a mahogany-effect dining table. Beyond them a window looks out on to trees and green fields, but on inspection it turns out to be just a large photograph on the wall. One of the men has glasses and a protuberant chin; across the room from him a complacent-looking man with extravagantly bouffant hair says: “Well Jimmy. It’s certainly been a busy weekend for referees.” A deep lethargy descends.

This is Jimmy Hill’s Sunday Supplement. Like a sporting Forrest Gump, Hill has been present at almost every major staging point in the evolution of English football during the last 40 years. Exorbitant wages, egotistical chairmen, backroom deals with television – only Jimmy can say: I was there at the start. One of the most influential figures in the history of the modern game is cur­rently trapped within the flimsy chipboard walls of tel­evision purgatory. Where did it all go wrong?

By the time he retired from playing at the age of 33 after a serious knee injury, Hill had already embarked on the most significant achievement of his career. In his capacity as chairman of the players’ union he initiated the strike action that would ultimately result in the abolition of the maximum wage for footballers.

If anyone can claim to be the father of the modern Premiership player, it is Jimmy Hill. Without Jimmy, there would be no Beckingham Palace, no Footballers’ Wives – maybe even no Jordan. Hill threatened to bring the game to a complete halt in the winter of 1961 unless the £20-a-week ceiling was abolished. Fulham team-mate Bobby Robson has described how the “very el­oquent” young Hill managed to attract a 100 per cent ballot backing for the strike.

For the first time since the 19th century, players were free to earn whatever clubs were prepared to pay, and wages have increased steadily ever since. Last year the combined wage bill of Premiership players rose to £720 million, with top-flight clubs spending 75 per cent of their income on wages. Perhaps it would be over­statement to suggest that this is all Jimmy Hill’s fault. But if ever a man left a trail of half-opened Pan­dora’s boxes in his wake, it’s Jimmy.

After a successful spell as manager of Coventry City, Hill left Highfield Road to begin his television career. As head of sport at London Weekend Television, and later ITV’s deputy controller of programmes, he faced a mountainous task. When he started at LWT, commercial television had no broadcasting rights to live sport at all. ITV were desperate to compete and before long Hill was introducing the World of Sport to such tel­evised treats as log-chopping and off-road cycling.

In a groundbreaking piece of broadcasting, Jimmy then put together a legendary hand-picked panel for ITV’s coverage of the 1970 World Cup. Through a haze of nylon-swathed, kipper-tied and faintly woozy foot­balling badinage, the likes of Brian Clough, Malcolm Allison and teen dreamboat Bob McNab took British television by storm. Almost single-handedly, Jimmy Hill had invented the Outspoken Punditry Panel. A fine achievement in itself, although the next time you wince as Ray Stubbs and the glassy-eyed “Lawro” mug pitifully for the cameras from their Saturday morning couch, you will know who to blame.

Buoyed by his World Cup coup, Hill soon had ITV wrangling with the BBC over the amounts paid to screen domestic football (which still totalled just half a million pounds as late as 1978), thereby helping to introduce the notion of competition among TV companies, producing an alternative – if unreliable – stream of revenue into the English game. Does any of this sound familiar? Fans of Leicester City, Derby County and any other club still reeling from the collapse of ITV Digital: if you have ever wondered where it might have all started, look no further. Jimmy knows.

Continuing on his odyssey of blazed trails and tick­ing time bombs, Hill returned to Coventry City in 1974. The nadir of Hill’s spell as chairman of the Sky Blues came seven years later, when his attempt to make High­field Road the country’s first all-seat stadium ended in disaster, with hooligans ripping up the seats and using them as missiles. The terraces were restored and Hill left the club two years later. All the same, a seed had been planted and within 25 years of Hill’s initiative standing terraces would vanish from the top flight of English football. The next time a steward tells you to sit down after your team have just scored, you will know the truth. It’s all Jimmy Hill’s fault.

So what else has he done? It’s pretty simple really. When you’re looking for something to pin on Jimmy Hill, just think of a problem and a route back to the man himself will always appear. Worried about sub-standard foreign players stifling home-grown British talent? During the Carlos Kickaball-friendly 1990s Jimmy Hill sat on the Football Work Permit Review Panel, a body charged with ruling which foreign play­ers deserve a permit to play in the domestic leagues (in the panel’s potted biographies Jimmy is described merely as “a respected football pundit”).

Bothered by the current obsession with pubescent Prem­iership stars? Disturbed by the fact that Wayne Rooney won the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year and has since been banned for violent conduct and scored just a single goal? Needless to say, Jimmy Hill ran the BBC Sports Personality of the Year pro­gramme during the 1970s, in the process helping to establish it as a national television event.

But this, of course, is all far too easy. Blaming Jimmy Hill for everything that has gone wrong in English football over the last 30 years is just a way of letting everyone else off the hook. In fact, like the man who split the atom, Jimmy merely gave us the chance to make choices; bad ones as it turned out.

Abolishing the salary cap: obviously a good idea. As long as you don’t go and spoil it by paying Benito Car­bone £2 million a year. TV companies competing to broadcast football: what could be better? Hardly Jim­my’s fault they ruin everything 20 years down the line by overstretching their shallow-pocketed paymasters. As for running a club with unchecked ambition at the top – another excellent idea. Just try explaining that to a Leeds United fan right now.

What is certain is that Jimmy leaves a unique legacy to a game he has served uniquely – as player, union official, manager, chairman, pundit and even linesman (he once took up the flag in a league match at Arsenal after one of the officials had injured himself).

And it’s in this capacity, as a kind of footballing everyman, the hotdog seller in the background of all of football’s biggest scenes, that Jimmy Hill will sur­vive. We are Jimmy; Jimmy is us. He showed us what could be done. His achievements, circumscribed by the kind of vanity that makes a man stick it out for over 600 appearances on Match of the Day, opened doors for others to tiptoe through – and then kick over a table or two once they’re inside.

So let us leave him in his chipboard kitchen with its basket of plastic croissants. In a game saturated with players paid the millions he helped them to earn, fed by the mass media he helped to stoke up, perhaps Jimmy Hill has found a fitting resting place. Jaw-Jaw with Jimmy sounds a bit like the ultimate Sunday morn­ing hangover. Ever the visionary, perhaps he’s pointing the way once again for a game that has, of late, drunk rather too much champagne.

From WSC 194 April 2003. What was happening this month

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