England's Winterbottom of great content

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The Independent Online
RICH CONGRATULATIONS are due to whoever was responsible for the opening credits on The Last Word With Jimmy Hill (Sky Sports News). Not for the originality of the backing music, mind you - "Jimmy, Jimmy" by the Undertones was always going to be a shade of odds-on - but for the way it is arranged around the titles.

There are shots of Jimmy eating a hot-dog outside a turnstile, Jimmy joshing with various footie luminaries - well, Harry Redknapp - and Jimmy waving to a joyful stand of adoring supporters. All the while, Feargal Sharkey is warbling away in the background. And then, just as they cut to a still of Jimmy with a broad-but-knowing grin on his face, Feargal gets to the line which runs "poor little Jimmy, wouldn't let go". If that's deliberate, it's genius. If it's an accident, it's even better.

Sadly, the show itself started before they could reach the end of the second verse, which reminds you that "no one ever listened/to a single word he said". And after that there's the whole of the third: "Now little Jimmy's gone/he disappeared one day/But no one saw the ambulance/that took little Jim away". It was not an ambulance, but Rupert Murdoch who took Jim away, but even so, the prescience of the Derry boys more than two decades ago is spooky.

Unless you are a subscriber to Sky Digital, you are probably unaware that Sky Sports News even exists, far less that Jimmy Hill is its star performer. But that is where he has been these past few months, when almost everyone thought he had retired, talking to an audience of, oooh, hundreds on a good night.

And do you know what the strangest thing is? Now that absolutely no one is watching, and he gets to be the anchor rather than a talking head with a time limit, Jimmy's quite good. He knows when to talk, and when to defer to his guest, as he frequently did this week when he conducted the first interview in living memory with Sir Walter Winterbottom.

On hearing that Winterbottom was due to appear on the show, many people would have expected the lights to come up to reveal Jimmy, an empty chair and a Ouija board. Or, failing that, an interviewee who appeared to be at least 120 years old.

In fact, the man who managed England longer than anyone else, and handed on the seeds of the World Cup-winning side to Sir Alf Ramsey in 1962 after 16 years in the job, turned out to be 86, sound of body and exceedingly sharp of mind and memory. His recollections of the 1950s were fascinating, not so much for the differences they highlighted with football in the modern era, as for the striking similarities.

The administrators were hopeless, then as now. When the nine-strong panel of international selectors presented Winterbottom with the names for his first England team, only two of them had seen the goalkeeper play.

The proportion of foreign players in the top division gave him problems too. Winterbottom could remember watching a match between Manchester City and Arsenal in the 1950s when only five of the 22 men on the pitch were qualified to play for England. And when his team did not come up with the right results, for example in the famous World Cup defeat by the United States, Winterbottom knew that the following day's newspaper columns would drip with poison.

The best anecdote of all, which kept Jimmy quiet for all of five minutes, concerned England's famous 3-2 victory against the Italians in Rome. It would be a disservice to Winterbottom's witty and impeccable delivery to relate it here.

Suffice to say that for the handful who saw it, it probably covered a month's subscription to Sky Digital all by itself. There is no higher praise.

Watching Hale and Pace's h&p@bbc (BBC1), on the other hand, is rather like being garrotted. You have a vague idea what it entails, and you are pretty sure that it is none too pleasant, but it is only when it is actually happening to you that the true magnitude of its awfulness becomes apparent.

Last week's show, for example, included a sports quiz - they get our licence money, remember, for coming up with ideas like this - with a panel comprising two well-known sporting celebrities, John Motson and John Inverdale, and also Annabel Croft.

The questions were predictably inane, but there was one, no doubt unintentional, source of entertainment. Motty, bless him, seemed to be treating it like the final of Mastermind.

Every question caused his little brow to furrow in desperate concentration. Every right answer - and there were plenty - saw his shoulders relax and a little smirk playing about his lips. Then, when the final scores were announced, he seemed almost disappointed that he had not won by more, and that there was no sign of a podium on to which he might climb. He's a strange old soul, is Motty, but unlike the hosts, he's always great value.

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