Football: The day United silenced Jimmy Hill

FA Cup fifth round: Fulham's trip to Old Trafford brings back painful memories for their most famous follower
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The Independent Online
IN THE best known of his myriad football incarnations, Jimmy Hill has talked the nation through thousands of goals. But the one he is describing is different. For one thing, it gave Fulham a foothold in the FA Cup final at the expense of Manchester United. For another, he scored it himself.

It is semi-final day at Villa Park, barely seven weeks after the Munich air disaster of 1958, and Fulham stand between Manchester United and an emotional return to Wembley. Before a crowd of nearly 70,000 people the Second Division side have cancelled out an early goal by the young Bobby Charlton and are about to get their noses, or rather chins, in front.

As Des Lynam might have said, how did you see it, Jim? "Our keeper, Tony Macedo, threw the ball to Roy Dwight, Elton John's cousin. I saw an opening between the centre-backs and went on a through run. Roy hit a spectacular pass in front of me. It was just a question of getting there first and putting it past Harry Gregg, which I did."

There is no Alan Hansen present to tease Hill about how much the goal owed to "diabolical defending"; no Trevor Brooking to puncture his assertion that "I thought I'd scored the winning goal". But while Charlton quickly equalised, only the harshest pundit could have denied Fulham's right to a replay after an injury to Jim Langley effectively left United facing 10 men for the entire second half.

When the sides reconvened at Highbury, Fulham trailed 3-0 but battled back and were only 4-3 down when Johnny Haynes had a "goal" disallowed with five minutes left. "We saw later on Pathe News that it should have stood but, in pushing for the equaliser, we let in a fifth," recalls Hill. "I was terribly disappointed because, as it turned out, it was my one chance to play in a Wembley final."

As underdogs, Hill and his colleagues would have been popular winners in normal circumstances, but in the aftermath of Munich he remembers "the country was rooting for United". However, the roles will be well and truly reversed on Sunday when United and Fulham play it again as Premiership and Second Division leaders respectively in the fifth round at a packed Old Trafford.

It is an occasion the London club would probably not have been around to enjoy but for Hill. The latest owner, Mohamed Al Fayed, may have raised their profile and prospects by allowing Kevin Keegan to lavish millions on the team. Yet it was Hill who, by putting together a consortium to rescue them from a merger most foul with Queen's Park Rangers in 1987, preserved Fulham's identity and football at Craven Cottage.

Since Keegan's side earned the tie by beating Aston Villa at the scene of his semi-final goal, their Cup run has inevitably stirred fond memories for Hill. Now 70, his affection for Fulham dates back six decades to when his father and uncle, milkmen both, first took him to a game.

He went back as a trialist at 15 and, in 1952, made a "sentimental" return when Fulham bought him from Brentford weeks before being relegated from the old First Division. First as a wing-half and later at inside-forward - he scored five at Doncaster a week before the United game - Hill was part of the team who restored their status and cemented the image of Fulham as a club bristling with charisma and characters.

There was something about the place itself: the quaintness of the Cottage, nestling in a corner of the ground bordered by a picturesque park; the open terrace parallel to the Thames where the flags of all their rivals fluttered; the absence of floodlights until the early 1960s.

It was matched by a plethora of personalities ranging from the chairman, comedian Tommy Trinder, to players such as Haynes, Bobby Robson, "Tosh" Chamberlain and Hill, who already stood out for his "beatnik" beard and work as chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association.

"The Dean family, who made blinds in Putney, owned the club, and I can still picture old man Dean coming into the dressing-room wearing a starched winged collar. Tommy [Trinder] didn't put any money in but he kept the club in the news and gave very generously of himself. He used to tell us gags on the coach, which was great for morale.

"The players were an interesting mix. We had grammar-school boys like myself and Haynesy and others who were graduates of the university of life. But we shared a sense of fun. I also remember Bill Dodgin rejoining Fulham from Arsenal and saying: `What a pleasure it is to be back, and to have some intelligent conversation in the changing- room'."

He ended "the happiest days of my footballing life" in 1961 and, having led the union, crossed into management with Coventry. Launching the "Sky Blue revolution" (to which he would return as chairman), he won them a place among the elite which they hold to this day. He then went into television, where he has worked as an executive, presenter and analyst respectively with terrestrial and satellite channels alike.

There have also been ventures into US soccer (unprofitably) and Saudi Arabian football (successfully), while he recently added a fresh string to his crowded bow with an absorbing autobiography* rich in anecdotes. But it was when he was a director of Charlton, where he had answered a friend's plea to bring some football experience to a board full of businessmen, that he came to Fulham's rescue.

"I went to the public meeting in Hammersmith Town Hall. The club looked as if it was going to die. People were asking `Will you do this?' and I couldn't resist. All my life I've responded to challenges and, because of the wonderfully nostalgic years and the great friendships I formed there, I still felt part of Fulham."

For 10 years, even when he was due back in London for Match of the Day, Chairman Hill spent Saturdays watching Fulham in unglamorous settings. Some who shared his devotion argue that something has been lost since the Al Fayed takeover - Keegan was astonished when a fan told him: "We don't want million-pound players here" - but Hill is pleased simply to see his first love "moving forward".

Whether they will ever fulfil their owner's ambition to be "the Manchester United of the South" is another matter. Hill believes their crowd-pulling potential places them in the Southampton/Nottingham Forest bracket. "And if they do reach the Premiership, they can't carry on at Craven Cottage," he warns. "Not only because of the size of the ground, but also because the area, particularly the roads, won't take it."

That is for the future. The present is all about Fulham performing creditably on Sunday and, more importantly in Hill's eyes, promotion back to the game's second tier. "I'll be there in spirit," promises the man Alex Ferguson labelled "a prat" for having the temerity to condemn a cynical lunge by Eric Cantona. "Let's just say it would not displease me at all if they got revenge for our defeat by United."

*The Jimmy Hill Story (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 17.99)