...and into extra time Profile: Jimmy Hill

His brand of football punditry may have looked outdated during the World Cup. But at 70, he's been given a new lease of life by Sky TV.

Jasper Rees
Saturday 29 August 1998 23:02

THERE is a moment in every footballer's career when he reaches his sell-by date and, like a week-old pint of milk, starts to go off. Younger players outdo him for pace, he misses open goals, the morning after a match he aches so much that he can't get out of bed. If there is a comparable moment in Jimmy Hill's career in football punditry, it may have come during the European Championships two years ago. The England team were performing above themselves and, in trying to put his finger on the mood of national fervour, Hill remarked that even the ladies were watching, including his wife.

When broadcasters disappear over the hill, they go to work for Sky television, whose primary role is to flog subscriptions to film and sport. Earlier in the year it signed Barry Norman from the BBC to be the Methuselah of its movie coverage. Last week, it followed suit in the sports department and invited a septuagenarian football pundit to host a talk show on Sky Sports News.

Jimmy Hill was in France this summer for his ninth World Cup. Although there was no official farewell - none of the valedictory palaver that attended the retirement of the commentator Brian Moore over on ITV - it was widely assumed to be his last studio engagement before he retreated to the home he shares with his third wife, Bryony, near Hurstpierpoint in Sussex, to play golf, do the odd charity engagement and shout at the television set like the rest of us.

The BBC made no noises about renewing his contract. Indeed, when the tournament was already in its stride, he was still grumbling about the corporation's silence to a national newspaper. He said then, and he said again last week with more than a hint of sour grapes, that the BBC had nothing for him to do anyway. It is shedding the rights to cover football the way Manchester City sheds managers.

If the BBC had really wanted to keep Hill, it would have done so. It may be hard for an old man to accept, as hard at 35 on the pitch as at twice that age on a panel, but it has been clear for a while that Hill's number was up. During the World Cup he looked as off the pace as the Gallic wallflower David Ginola. In the same way that they ignored Ginola because his English wasn't up to the job, the younger, racier pundits, armed with blunt Scottish wit and sinuous Irish articulacy, simply ganged up on Hill with his antediluvian bugbears and his Cross of St George bow tie (which he had to get permission to wear).

They may have been talking about football, but they were actually indulging in bloodsport. It made for jolly good viewing: Alan Hansen as Punch; Hill, for all the jutting promontory of his chin, as Judy. Off-screen, Hill may well be on cordial terms with his assailants, but it cannot have been much fun for him. Throughout the tournament there was a look of baffled hurt on his face. Nice bloke and everything, but indisputably a dinosaur.

In many other sports, age would not wither his effectiveness as a pundit: in cricket, golf, athletics, tennis and even rugby, the BBC has its long- serving repositories of gentlemanly good sense, and everyone loves them. But football has undergone a revolution largely bankrolled by the funds injected into the sport by Hill's new employers, and Hill can be seen as a victim of it.

As the old man struggled this summer to run with a much younger pack, it was easy to forget that Jimmy Hill was once the embodiment of modernity in English football. When he was a competent player with Fulham in the 1950s, even the best footballers were paid just pounds 20 a week. Now the better ones take home a thousand times that. And the seeds of the gargantuan hike were sown in 1961 when Hill, as the chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association, negotiated the removal of the pounds 20 maximum wage.

When he retired from playing, in the same year, and moved into management, in five years he took Coventry City from the old Third Division to the First Division (now Premiership) - where they remain to this day - before becoming a director and then chairman. It is his belief that no other former player has made a comparable tour through the various echelons of a club. He is also a qualified referee, and once, in a match between Arsenal and Liverpool in 1972, he vacated the commentary box to run the line when a linesman was injured.

In 1968 Hill was made Head of Sport at LWT, where he pioneered the concept of a panel of experts. It was introduced for ITV's coverage of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, and for the first and only time ITV earned superior viewings figures to the BBC's, which subsequent poachings have been unable to repeat. Hill himself was poached three years later, when he moved to the BBC to anchor Match of the Day, and his insightful presentation helped to make it the Saturday-night institution it has become.

But ITV bought sole rights to league football in 1989, and when the BBC got them back in 1991 they entrusted the stewardship of Hill's old programme to the more emollient, viewer-friendly Des Lynam. Hill assumed the status of senior citizen in the BBC's football coverage, to be rolled out in his bathchair for internationals and cup finals. It was around this point that Hill mutated into a kind of national hate figure - especially in Scotland: he has sometimes taken a dim view of Scotland's international team, and Scottish fans take a dim view back. One tartan banner in France this summer read: "We Hate Jimmy Hill."

The first person to be paid to disagree vehemently with Hill - rather than do it for nothing from the privacy of his (or her) own sofa - was the matey, spivvy Terry Venables. BBC Sport discovered that the two men yoked together on one panel set off a volatile chemical reaction, and even after Venables left to manage England the BBC continued to play Hill in this role. Then his contract expired.

Hill has suffered far greater loss than the termination of his relationship with the BBC. The son of a milkman/baker's boy, he was born in 1928 and brought up in south London, the youngest of three children. His half-sister was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1935, and his brother died, also in an accident, while serving with the Royal Engineers in Iraq during the war. He got a scholarship to the local grammar school, where peer pressure knocked the aspiring footballer out of him, and started playing again only when, during his National Service, he was put in a unit swarming with professional players. He joined Brentford in 1949, Fulham four years later, and stayed there for eight years. In the Eighties he successfully led a consortium to rescue the club from liquidation, and was for a while chairman. It is now protected from insolvency by his successor, Mohammed al-Fayed.

The timing of Hill's move to Sky is worthy of note. For several years Bryony, who acts as his secretary (and has good relations with her two predecessors and five stepchildren), has politely batted back requests for interviews with steely resolve. Her husband has been keeping his powder dry for his autobiography, which he wrote without a ghostwriter. It will be published shortly, and the publicity will do its cause no harm at all.

There is another study in the can, a film about the life in football of its senior pundit which the BBC made as a kind of leaving present. It was wrongly reported last week that the BBC, since Hill signed for the opposition, is pondering the wisdom of showing it. In fact it will go out later in the autumn under the title, Are You Watching Jimmy Hill? The reality is that not many of us will be from now on. To most viewers he is a minority attraction these days, and the logical place for him is a minority channel.

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