Life story that turned Jimmy Hill into a hero

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK, a judge turned over a two-week verdict on Eric Cantona and an entire nation turned over the judgement of a lifetime on Jimmy Hill, thanks to This Is Your Life (BBC1, Wednesday). It's just typical: you think you've found someone you can reliably dislike without any feelings of remorse, and then Michael Aspel turns up and tells you how they're a quiet saint on the charity circuit and will even shave off their beard as long as there's thousands of pounds in it for the disadvantaged.

What a turn-around this was. It wouldn't even be fair to say that Jimmy Hill slotted into that possibly mythical category - the people you love to hate. More often than not, hating Jimmy Hill has involved having a really bad time. But from now on, at every point at which one is tempted to turn rancorously against him, one will be haunted by a sequence from Wednesday night's show in which Hill, handed a cornet by one of a cheerful bunch of his old marching-band pals, promptly delivered a quick burst of the "Eton Boating Song", pausing with perfect comic timing before nailing the high note at the end. At home, blinking away the tears, one was forced to confront the utterly unthinkable: Jimmy Hill In "Really Nice Man" Shock.

There they all were, in the This is Your Life bleachers - Des, Alan, Trevor, Brian Moore, Reg Gutteridge, even "little" Dickie Davies. At one point an enormous, suited figure rounded the scenery, looking slightly lost. I was still in a state of some considerable personal difficulty following the cornet sequence. It dawned on me that I possibly wasn't going to be able to make it through if we were now, as it appeared, to be shown a heart- wrenching parade of the fellow beings whom Hill has slowly but successfully restored to a place within the community. But as it turned out, it was the former Wolves and Ireland international Derek Dougan.

It had been Dougan's dubious privilege to sit round a table with Hill on an old, ITV football discussion programme chaired by Brian Moore. It was his dubious privilege now to cue in a clip. Just as seagulls follow the trawler in hope of being thrown a sardine, so many of us gather hungrily wherever 1970s television clips are being shown, in the hope of glimpsing a kipper tie. And we were not let down here. You could have run a trawler aground on the kipper tie Malcolm Allison was wearing.

Allison, whose nearly closed eyes suggested he may well have helped himself liberally to the contents of the sideboard in the hospitality room before filming started, was seen putting forward a forthright view: namely, that all foreigners are "peasants". And Jimmy Hill was seen to be intervening on behalf of foreigners and, by implication, on behalf of the future of civilised conversation. It's not a glamorous job - indeed, as Hill has discovered, you run the risk of coming across like a schoolmaster, putting down the unruly pupils while trying, unsuccessfully, not to appear ruffled by them. But someone's got to do it, so it might as well be Hill.

Tributes came from far and wide. Jimmy Tarbuck appeared in a film clip, on a golf course in San Lorenzo. Odd that the This is Your Life team didn't grab Tarby less than a week earlier, when he was in a London studio, filming an edition of Fantasy Football League: it left you wondering whether, as well as flying surprise guests in from around the world, the programme also flies surprise guests out, just to make things more exotic.

We learnt, from Lawrie McMenemy, closer to home, the secret of Hill's unruffled on-screen grooming: even in the most wind-blown aluminium broadcasting shed, on the most God-forsaken playing field, Hill stays smooth and smart by taking along his own personal make-up compact, complete with mirror, brush and mascara.

Gary Lineker said that Hill "always fought for the good things in football". It was Hill who, as chairman of the Players' Union, got the maximum wage lifted. But was that such a good idea? Without Jimmy Hill, players would still be earning £20 per week, less tax, and you can see how, in some very straightforward ways, this would be to the benefit of the game. Dennis Wise, for instance, would have been in no position to afford a taxi in the first place, but would have gone home on the last bus. And Paul Merson would have had to have made do with sniffing the tip of a felt pen, holding his breath and jumping up and down for two minutes.

Such quibbles meant nothing on the night. Desmond Lynam once said that if it was possible to unite the Middle East, then even Jimmy Hill and Terry Venables would one day come to an understanding. Wednesday was that historic occasion. "The word `warmth' comes to me, Jim," said Tel, as Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter looked on, smiling proudly.

With Cantona, the judge decreed that his offence, though it clearly brought football into disrepute, should not be punished with a custodial sentence. The producers of This is Your Life must surely now face the strictest penalty the Football Association can muster, for bringing Jimmy Hill into repute. In a season of blows to the game, this is an especially tough one to bear.