Sport on TV: The strange phenomenon of Jimmy Hill

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The Independent Online
WHO SAID this? "I would like to be a dictator and manage all 92 League clubs, and make the directors do what is good for the game and the future. I think that would be marvellous." Brian Clough? Ken Bates? Eric Hall? Sort of. A combination of all three in fact - that strange phenomenon, Jimmy Hill.

That remark, uttered when Hill was the pioneering manager of Coventry City, comes a couple of minutes into Are You Watching, Jimmy Hill? (BBC2, Saturday) and is perhaps the most revealing few seconds of this encomium to the Chinful Wonder. Into his dotage, even his most womanish contributions are delivered with a ferocious conviction. And when accosted by argumentative drunks, says Des Lynam (it must happen a lot): "Jimmy won't pass by, he will take this person on, and 99 times out of 100 the guy will go away thinking: `I've lost'."

A couple of minutes after the "dictator" clip, there's film of "the Rabbi", as he was known at Fulham, pacing out the 10 yards at a free-kick, then arguing furiously with the referee afterwards, chin to epic chin.

It's the fire for the game that has made him a consistently watchable if irritating pundit for the last quarter of a century, though even if he'd opened up a pub in the late 60s and never seen the light of day again his place in the game's history would be secure by dint of his work to have the maximum wage removed and the revolution he instigated at Coventry, taking them from the Third Division to the First amid a frenzy of US-style marketing.

The impression these last few years has been one of relative decline - too many potty pronouncements and loony lectures (there's film of Alan Hansen paralysed with laughter during Hill's treatise during France 98 on the benefits of teams dyeing their hair en masse). In something of a backhanded compliment, Barry Davies said: "Every so often he comes up with a couple of lines and people think: `Hang on, didn't we think this fellow was past it'?"

Hansen and Terry Venables often seem to be utterly exasperated with the fatuousness of some of Hill's remarks, and Hansen is conspicuous by his absence from the film. Venables insists he likes the guy, despite popular perception, describing a typical encounter with a cabbie: "You really don't like that Jimmy Hill, do you?" "I do like him, actually." "No, you don't." "No, I really do like him." "Nah you don't." "All right, I don't like him."

The film was missing a couple of people - cool analysts rather than foaming- mouthed ranters - who genuinely do not like him or at least his punditry. But then this was an affectionate tribute rather than a "Secret Life Of..." blockbuster, though a less chummy account would have had more fun with some of his more ridiculous pretensions - his unlikely infiltration, while still a footballer oik, of the foxhunting set for example, and his apparent "weakness" for women.

Still, we get a few seconds of him looking suitably absurd and arriviste at the hunt, surrounded by hounds presumably mistaking his furry chin for their quarry. And there's later footage of him looking equally out of place as he accompanies Raquel Welch to a match, explaining the finer points as she spouts breathtaking nonsense left over from her cavewoman script in One Million Years BC. "If women's lib knew what they were doing," sighs the former top totty, "they'd be down here watching this game, watching all these lovely men doing wonderful athletic things."

The archive highlight, though, is Hill riding at Aintree in 1974 (could it have been an actual race?). The first fence is one too many as his mount, perhaps realising how he's sent his career down the pan by allowing himself to be ridden by someone like this, exits track and course via what appears to be somebody's back garden while the miked-up Hill tries to talk horsey to him (making more sense in the process than he was wont to do in later years).

My other favourite piece of film was from the 1970 World Cup, for which Hill, then still in the process of building up LWT's coverage to match the BBC's, assembled a panel from hell, which made, of course, for TV heaven: Paddy Crerand, Derek Dougan and a splendidly pissed Malcolm Allison roaring about the "peasants" of Italy and Germany persisting with the sweeper system.

The trio ran up a legendary drink tab, according to Hill's joint head of LWT Sport, John Bromley: "The manager came quivering to me with the bill." It was worth it, because ITV was finally on the footballing map thanks to Hill - just one of his many achievements. Venables describes walking with him on a pitch-side track to the accompaniment of "Jimmy Hill's a wanker". Hill was unperturbed. "There's fame for you," he said. "They love me here." And, in a way, he was right.