Football: Is Jimmy Hill a figment of our imaginations?

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The Independent Online
Jimmy Hill is a generational thing. To anyone who can remember ration books, he is that half-decent Fulham player who became a successful manager at Coventry City, and then an intensely irritating television pundit. If you spent your youth turning on, tuning in and dropping out, parts two and three are the only ones which apply. And where almost everyone else is concerned, he is nothing more than the malign presence at Des's right hand who makes half-time miserable.

Which is why Are You Watching Jimmy Hill? (BBC2) was such a timely reminder that once upon a time at least, Hill seemed to know what he was talking about. The tone of Giles Smith's biography of Jimmy The Chin rarely strayed from the affectionate - his leading role in a sanction-busting football tour of South Africa merited just 20 seconds of airtime - but this is Christmas, after all. Peace on Earth and goodwill unto all men, even him.

It was an enthralling, not to mention educational, story, although the very first image was possibly the weakest. Gerald Scarfe had been hired to provide a study of Hill, but his considerable talents as a caricaturist could still not do the subject justice. Hill's most striking feature, after all, is not the jutting jawline, but his ego, and how do you capture that with pen and ink?

As Des Lynam put it: "Jimmy loves fame. He embraces fame." To such an extent that he saw even the Anglo-Saxon abuse hurled in his direction by fans of whoever happened to be playing Coventry on a given weekend as welcome evidence that if nothing else, they knew who he was. And to be fair to him, who doesn't? Try to think of any figure in British football who is more instantly familiar to football fans of all ages and you may be puzzling for a very long time.

So in that sense at least, Hill is a winner. Everyone knows him, even if they do grind their teeth down to the roots whenever he opens his mouth. And winning is something he knows a great deal about, albeit that his most famous success, the abolition of the minimum wage, probably owed more to being in the right place at the right time. Taking Coventry to the top flight, on the other hand, and laying the foundations which have kept them there for 30 years, is something of which anyone would be rightfully proud.

But the question to which many armchair fans wanted an answer was what, exactly, in his playing and managerial careers qualified him to inflict his opinions on the nation for the next 30 years. And the answer, as most had long suspected, turned out to be precisely nothing. When Hill joined London Weekend Television as head of sport, it was his first job in television. Typically, he quickly got them talked about, putting together an incendiary panel of pundits for the 1970 World Cup. But the LWT franchise did not reach far beyond Watford, and it would hurt him when northern taxi drivers asked him what he was up to these days. The ego demanded a move to the BBC, and he has been etching himself into the nation's brains ever since.

As Smith was eager to point out, there is much more to him than daft comments about bottle-blond Romanians, or the throwaway remark about David Narey's "toe-poke" goal against Brazil, for which Scotland will never forgive him. "Nous detestons Jeemie Heel," read the T-shirt on one Scottish back in France last summer. "Il est un pedale. Il est un pedale".

Unlike most egomaniacs, he can at least poke fun at himself. Bobby Gould, meanwhile, was actually moved to tears of gratitude when asked to recall how Hill had helped his own career along, which must rather queer Jimmy's pitch with the Welsh as well. Amateur poet, cancer survivor, and possessed of comic timing which plenty of today's stand-ups would kill for, this was not the Jimmy Hill that many viewers might have expected.

At times, it seemed almost like a plea for forgiveness. But it is still hard to oblige, even at Christmas. The most delicious thought of all, as Lynam tried to explain that "we've got tons of good guys in this business, and Jimmy's our villain in a way", was that Hill is now enduring a punishment which Dante would appreciate. The man who spent a lifetime forcing his way into so many living-rooms has moved on to Sky Sports News. Thus, one answer to the question "Are You Watching, Jimmy Hill?" is: no, of course not. No one is.

It is like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree which falls in a forest with no one there to hear it, and whether it makes a noise. Jimmy is still talking, but if nobody is taking any notice, does he really exist? And the best answer to both questions, of course, is who cares?