Football: Hill still taking it on the chin 28 years later

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The Independent Online
LET ME first say that Jimmy Hill deserves eternal credit for his key role in effecting the abolition of the maximum wage for professional footballers.

Let me add that the enterprising style of management he displayed in taking Coventry City into the First Division in the late 1960s was a model for its times.

Right. Having got that out of the way, I feel free to... oh no I don't. Not quite.

Chin. I say this because the word is always mentioned in connection with Hill, and even though I have no particular view on it I don't want to miss out. Chin. There you are. I've said it again.

So now - over the past 30 years, Hill's comments about the game, first on ITV, then BBC - have aggravated me beyond reason. Like his fellow panellists Terry Venables and more recently Alan Hansen, I have found his dogged assertions hard to bear. Like Aarfy in "Catch 22", nothing can alter his benign certainty in his own ineffable wisdom. Shout at him, pound him with your flagging fists - it won't do any good.

And even that is not the thing I find most unforgiveable about Jimmy Hill.

Excuse me a moment while I compose myself.

Okay. It is 1971, and Arsenal, under the guidance of their commanding officer, Bertie Mee, and barking sergeant major, Don Howe, are closing on the first League and Cup double since Tottenham's a decade earlier.

In the run-up to the FA Cup final, Hill takes it upon himself to devise a new means of rallying the Highbury supporters. A song. Why? Too late, the thought is thunk, and verses penned by the bearded bard - that chin does come in useful, I have to say - appear in the papers as if they were a new poem by Rudyard Kipling.

"Good Old Arsenal, We're proud to say the name, While we sing this song we'll Win The Game..." to the tune of "Rule Britannia".

There comes a point when words cannot support the weight of meaning invested in them... But let's press on.

I don't blame Hill for this. What am I saying? Of course I bloody blame him for it. The song still infects my memory. But I can't blame him entirely.

I felt sure that every sensible Arsenal fan would make it their personal mission never to utter a syllable of this dire ditty. Sadly, I was mistaken.

Young minds were manipulated at a particularly vulnerable time of their season. Jimmy's awful big adventure into the world of terrace culture proved dismally successful.

What distressed me most about the exercise was its blandness, its plonking predictability. It was a manufactured mess for the masses, missing (what a lot of m's indignation provokes) the warp and weft (Whoo! Gone all wibbly-wobbly now) of naturally-occurring terrace chants.

Round about this time, the team I saw most of in real life was our nearest League outfit, Watford. The season before Arsenal's Double, the Second Division side had beaten Stoke City and then, famously, Liverpool, en route to a 5-1 FA Cup semi-final defeat by Chelsea.

A particular favourite Watford song of mine concerned their unpredictable forward, Rodney Green. To the tune of "Quartermaster Stores", we had: "He's up, he's down, he's in the Rose and Crown, Rodney Green, Rodney Green." There was, as it happened, a Rose and Crown pub in nearby Croxley Green.

Well, it worked for us.

Then there was this offering, widely sung before a Cup meeting with Manchester United: "We all agree, Slater is better than Yashin, Scullion is better than Eusebio, United you're in for a thrashing..." I made the mistake of watching the 1971 FA Cup final on television with my friend Taffy Reynolds, an Arsenal supporter. Before the match kicked off, I got a first-hand glimpse of the damage Hill had wrought on impressionable youth when Taffy's younger brother, Jonathan, sang the song repeatedly and with apparent satisfaction.

After Charlie George's extra-time goal had settled the whole shooting match in favour of the north Londoners, Taffy, flushed with success, bellowed the Hill anthem repeatedly in my face with only a faint sense of irony.

At that point, I felt sure I would have been able to argue in any court, the song was a weapon, an instrument of abuse.

"That's rubbish," I can imagine an insistent voice insisting. Doggedly insisting, with a fixed smile, and a faintly jutting you-know- what, until I'm properly told. "Rubbish. It's just a piece of harmless fun. Your prejudices are showing."

"Good Old Arsenal", with new words from Jimmy Hill, reached No 16 in the charts in the summer of 1971. God preserve us all.