Brian Viner: Hill's chin and ego disguise the heartbeat of football

Contrariness and unselfishness combine in one of the game's great characters, who is 75 tomorrow. The chin has helped him to stand out from a crowd, which he loves to do
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The Independent Football

Most football enthusiasts are familiar with the caution "look away now", issued by a newsreader just before the result of a football match flashes up on screen, when highlights are to be transmitted later. Well, today's column carries the same caution. It is a column in praise of Jimmy Hill, who tomorrow attains the grand old age of 75. So, if you are one of those who considers Hill to be a scourge, an irritant, or just a bit of a plonker, then ... look away now.

For my money, Hill is an institution to be celebrated. He is the only man to have been a top-level footballer, coach, manager (steering Coventry City from the Third division to the First), director and chairman. Similarly, in his broadcasting career with ITV, the BBC and now Sky, he has been executive (as London Weekend Television's first Head of Sport), presenter and pundit.

And as chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association he famously fought for the abolition of the maximum wage. Although it would have happened anyway, and although football might now benefit from a reintroduction of a maximum wage, neither is a reason for not crediting him with a heroic piece of shop stewardship.

Then there is the Mr Punch chin, a miracle of divine engineering, as anyone who has spent time in its company will attest. In his autobiography, The Jimmy Hill Story, there is a photograph of him as a schoolboy, with his parents, and the chin is already there, making its considerable presence felt. Neither of his parents was so blessed. And blessing it has undoubtedly been, for it has helped him to stand out from a crowd, which he loves to do. In Paris, during the 1998 World Cup, he was strolling alongside the Seine with Desmond Lynam. "Isn't it nice not to be recognised every five yards," said Des. Jimmy's silence spoke volumes.

Everyone who knows him well talks of his gigantic ego (there have been few positive developments in football, from three points for a win to all-seater stadiums, for which he does not claim credit, sometimes but not always justifiably) yet in his devotion to the game there has never been a shred of selfishness. "He is one of the few people who is just 100 per cent football," said Alan Hansen. "And when he talks about it, he talks straight from the heart. Football has missed him as an administrator." Another erstwhile colleague, Barry Davies, agreed. "He should have been the dictator of football. He would have driven some people mad, but my God, football wouldn't be in the mess that it is."

I phoned Hansen and Davies the other day to inform them that I was writing a 75th birthday paean, and to ask for their favourite Jimmy Hill stories. At the start of Woody Allen's film Broadway Danny Rose, about a small-time theatrical agent, a bunch of his friends sit in the Carnegie Deli in New York swapping their favourite Danny Rose anecdotes. Read the BBC canteen for Carnegie Deli, and Jimmy Hill for Danny Rose, and it's easy to picture the same scene.

All those who have worked with him have a Jimmy Hill story, and one of Hansen's favourites recalls the 1998 World Cup, when the entire Romanian team dyed their hair peroxide blond. Dismissed by all the other analysts as a daft stunt, it was lauded by Hill, with characteristic contrariness, as being tactically astute. The Romanian players would find it easier to pick out their teammates, he said, oblivious to the guffaws around him.

Hansen also recalled the 1994 World Cup, when he, Hill and Trevor Brooking, on a morning off, went to play golf. In those Broadway Danny Rose-style stories about Hill, golf is never far away. "We were joined," said Hansen, "by an American guy, whose name, funnily enough, was Bill Sill. Now this guy was a good player, and Jimmy, who isn't, was having the nightmare of all nightmares. We were playing for points, and after nine holes it was about 17, 16, 15 and 3. On about the 15th, Jimmy hits his drive into the trees again, and a minute or two later Trevor tells me to look round, and Jimmy's got out of the buggy and he's giving this guy Bill a lesson, telling him what he's doing wrong. It was incredible."

For Davies, meanwhile, Hill is a man of preternatural orderliness, albeit with the devoted collaboration of the women (there have been several) in his life. "I remember once dropping him off at his flat in Notting Hill Gate, and the moment he put his key in the door, so the tap for his bath was turned on. Trains arrive when he gets to the platform, flights are called when he reaches the executive lounge, it's quite uncanny. And it's not at all surprising that he beat [bowel] cancer." Accumulating three points for the win, of course. Happy 75th birthday, Jimmy Hill. I truly think a knighthood is in order.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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