Brian Viner: Hill's Sky-Blue thinking was ahead of times

The Last Word

Fifty years ago this weekend, a 33-year-old man with his collar turned up and his hat pulled low, took his seat at Highfield Road for a first-round FA Cup tie between Third Division Coventry City and non-league King's Lynn.

The disguise wasn't much good, for it needed more than a trilby to conceal the fellow's most distinguishing feature. Indeed, not even a 10-gallon Stetson would have masked Jimmy Hill's famously prominent chin.

Still, it wasn't as though the fans who recognised the former Fulham player and tenacious chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association – who earlier that year had helped to abolish the game's maximum wage – could work out why he was there. They didn't know that the Coventry chairman Derrick Robins, introduced to Hill at a Lord's Taverners function by the cricketer Jim Laker, had asked him whether he might consider becoming the club's manager.

In fact, Coventry already had a manager, Billy Frith, but against King's Lynn that Saturday afternoon, in a performance described by the local paper as "puny and deplorably inept", Frith's team lost 2-1. It is not the most seismic FA Cup shock involving Coventry; that distinction belongs to the 1989 victory, by the same scoreline, of another non-league outfit, Sutton United. The Sutton defeat was more seismic because Coventry were then in the top division and had won the FA Cup two seasons before, but it did not reverberate like the King's Lynn result, not just around Coventry but around English football in general, and not just in the ensuing days but for decades to come.

When we look at the timeline of evolving management methods, the 1960s throws up men such as Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Bill Nicholson, Jock Stein, Don Revie, Harry Catterick and the young, thrusting Brian Clough. But it was debatable whether any of them was quite as pioneering as Jimmy Hill, installed as Coventry City's manager four days after the King's Lynn humiliation, on 29 November 1961.

He promptly disregarded the Football League's ban on players talking to the press, and recognised the need for all kinds of public-relations initiatives that are commonplace now, but were startlingly revolutionary then. He changed the kit, putting his players into matching shirts and shorts before anybody else had thought of such a thing, and then, with the support of Robins, got down to some serious Sky-Blue thinking. Radio Sky Blue was launched to entertain fans before kick-off; the Sky Blue Express train carried them to away matches. Not all his ideas came off, including his plan for a huge firework to be let off whenever the team scored at home (cruelly, the Sky Blues were thwarted by blue skies). But he was relentlessly entrepreneurial, and scientific too, the Arsène Wenger of his day, incorporating the body-rhythm theories of Sir Adolphe Abrahams, the founder of clinical sports medicine, into the club's training regime.

So why does the old big-chinned wonder get overlooked when we celebrate great managers of the 1960s? It is partly because Coventry were an unfashionable club in the lower divisions – though he steered them to two promotions in five years and into the top flight, where they remained until 2001 – and partly because of his later incarnation on television, which did not, it is fair to say, win him universal popularity. In their excellent book Day of the Match: A History of Football in 365 Days, Scott Murray and Rowan Walker are cheekily irreverent about his departure for London Weekend Television in 1967. "City's loss became TV's loss," they write.

Nonetheless, nobody has ever wielded as much influence in such a wide range of jobs in and around football as Jimmy Hill, and I find it rather sad that my teenage sons have never heard of him. He's never been, it has to be added, notably reticent about proclaiming his achievements to the world. Even on the golf course, where I once shared an enjoyable afternoon with him, he used the Vardon grip to blow his own trumpet. But he is by all accounts seriously unwell these days, so it seems timely and right, while he is still with us, to mark the 50th anniversary of one of English football's landmark moments, little though it seemed it at the time: Coventry City 1 King's Lynn FC 2.

Land of leeks enjoys rugby's high ground

Living as I do just half an hour from the Anglo-Welsh border, I can practically hear the whoops of delight with every new Keystone Kops revelation about the Rugby Football Union and England's miserable World Cup. From Snowdonia to the old slag heaps of the Valleys, Wales has become one great expanse of moral high ground. Yesterday, even Andy Powell, the man who piloted a golf cart along the M4, joined in the chorus of superiority, pointing out that he and his team-mates weren't averse to a beer or two in New Zealand, but knew where to draw the line.

Who'd have thought that, in that mystical fly-half factory near Tredegar, they would ever have derived so much pleasure from watching the twists and turns of Rob Andrew, the man who put the "ten" in untenable and the mirth into Merthyr Tydfil? In the land of giant leeks, they are positively feasting on English rugby's giant leak. And I don't begrudge them a single mouthful.

Beckham will shop around

Vinnie Jones thinks that David Beckham will sign up for another year in Los Angeles. English football's second most famous export to LA told me on Monday that he'd put money on it. Why? "Because his missus loves them shops on Rodeo Drive."

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