Matt Nation tackles Jimmy Hill's life story, and a few demons of his own
His nickname was “Dirt”, he taught us chemistry and he had the demeanour and looks of a bar-room brawler in a road movie. For years, he shouted, smote and browbeat in order to gain what loosely resembled respect. Then one day, a group of fifth-formers locked him in the school greenhouse and treated it to a barrage of rocks. Even those of us who were too well brought-up or too faint-hearted to propel lumps of mortar at a figure of authority willed every missile to strike Dirt in the solar plexus at the very least. And then, last year, Dirt died, and a lot of those whom he had caused to whimper felt bad, and had no idea why this should be.
The departure of Jimmy Hill from terrestrial television has undoubtedly triggered a similar sentiment of mea culpa among those who, for years, loathed his omnipresent austerity. Like Dirt, Jimmy Hill used to turn me physically and mentally invertebrate simply by popping up on the television screen. Flanked by parents catatonic on light ale and Welsh cakes and thus unable to notice that I should have been in bed, and with 50 minutes of football ahead of me, my Saturday nights should have been positively Elysian; instead, Jimmy Hill could make you feel as though you were in borstal for a misdemeanour you hadn’t committed.
Faced with his Kitcheneresque aura and a gaze penetrating enough to remove a squaddie’s tattoos in a trice, I spent the duration of Match of the Day in fear of him jabbing his finger in my direction and barking “You, boy, don’t loll on the settee, get your hand out of your jim-jams and listen to me remove any desire you may have had to grow older with my cloying analysis of Kenny Sansom’s jockeying and harrying techniques.”
Far from fulfilling his purported function of encouraging youngsters to participate in a bit of rough-and-tumble on the football field, Jimmy Hill filled me with an unquenchable desire to smash up the television and then emigrate to the Kingdom of Narnia to spend my waking hours making daisy chains and dreaming about owning a pony.
In view of the sternness of the protagonist, there may thus be a few people who would tackle The Jimmy Hill Story with more than a little trepidation. And they may be relieved to find out that our favourite Dutch uncle comes across in print as he has on camera for many years, mainly as a hybrid of the worst, or at least the most mundane, character traits of Noel Edmonds, Richard Branson and an excessively impetuous alderman.
Apart from a whiff of rather inappropriate licentiousness at the very beginning (“Whoever made us created an appetite to explore the delights of love and lust with more than one partner”), the author, or “JH” as he was apparently known to everybody, including his own parents, treats us to 300 pages of what one may have had a rough idea of anyway: unremarkable playing career, union bigwig, television smarty-pants. Unfortunately, it is woefully short on the insights and incidental detail that would set the book apart from that of any other notables from the football universe.
As is often the case with a 70-year-old, his anecdotes seem to be devoid of a punchline (although the revelation that people sat down and shut up on a regular basis to hear George Curtis reciting “If” explodes the myth of the Swinging Sixties if nothing else; however, half a page is devoted to a yarn about a cleaning lady – and it’s as true as I’m sitting here now, honest to God, ladies and gentlemen – failing to dust above the washbasin).
His marketing ideas appear to be ahead of their time, at least in their improvidence, with the highlight being a plan to set off a massive firework visible all over Coventry after each goal scored by the home team. The idea was binned after it was discovered that the firework was so powerful would not only have been seen by the entire population, it would also have razed the city, and half of Warwickshire, to the ground. And absolutely no attempt is made to conceal his trademark self-righteousness, which tugs at the reader’s patience like the clicking fingers and raised hand of a pupil who always knows the answer. This is best illustrated by Jimmy Hill’s own assessment of his idea to change training times to the afternoon (“I began to wonder whether I had stumbled on a soccer secret akin to splitting the atom”).
Throughout the book, one is constantly aware of just how long ago Jimmy Hill was at his most energetic. The language is archaically quaint (“Pop-and-crisp parties” and “tummy problems” both turn up on more than one occasion); the nicknames are harrowingly twee in comparison to the current batch of Psychos, Rambos and Youfatbastards (one team-mate was referred to as “Whizzo”, while Bedford Jezzard was known, almost pornographically for the period in question, as “Pud”). Even the bedroom scenes, despite the aforementioned rutting-boar episode at the beginning of the book, are flannelette rather than latex in nature, with Jimmy Hill waking his wife at 2.30 in the morning to ask her whether she would like a cup of Ovaltine.
Of course, one would expect a book written by a grandfather to absolutely reek of times gone by, although Jimmy Hill often appears to be an era behind the era he’s supposed to be in. And exactly that is the problem surrounding the latter-day Jimmy Hill. A man who thinks that the population of a city can be united by an exploding tube of gunpowder has been allowed to play his part in marking out a course for football in the late 20th century. And we let him do it, because he’s always done it, and we now tolerate him with the watery smiles and long-suffering chuckles usually reserved for the niff of an elderly relative’s flatulence.
All of us, even (or especially) Jimmy Hill, should know that anything which goes on for too long – parties, fornication, AOR groups from the Sixties (all of whom probably containing at least one member known as “Pud”) – is unsatisfactory. Unfortunately, longevity alone does not right all, or even any, evils; it simply fosters sentimentality. And it is sentimentality which ultimately allows the Dirts, JHs, Whizzos and other scourges of this world to flourish. And, with the possible exception of in Alan Bennett’s sitting room, nowhere is sentimentality more prominent than in football.
Whether Jimmy Hill was aware of this phenomenon and went on to exploit it in order to secure his place in the nation’s collective footballing memory is irrelevant. With a head apparently full of steaming beverages, gratuitous pyromania and junk-food bonanzas, it is highly unlikely that he was ever cynical enough to think along those lines. But the fact remains that Jimmy Hill has steamrollered us into liking him (or at least his existence) although most of us would willingly lower ourselves out of a back bedroom window on a rope of knotted sheets if he ever came round out of the blue for a cup of tea and a football chat. As Jimmy Hill himself would never have said, he “treated us mean, he kept us keen”, and we should hate ourselves for putting up with it, every man Jack of us.
From WSC 142 December 1998. What was happening this month