Jimmy Hill was hardly the angel of his colleagues' eulogies

Jimmy deserved to reach national treasure status, but he was no cuddly cartoon figure

Matthew Norman
Sunday 20 December 2015 19:45 GMT
Jimmy Hill in 1987
Jimmy Hill in 1987

The death of every grand figure unearths at least one irony or paradox about their life. So it is with Jimmy Hill, the last of whose battles was fought posthumously – for headline coverage – against his fellow 87-year-old dementia victim, the ignoble Lord Janner.

The paradox is this: no one ever had a name so purely synonymous with scepticism; readers of a certain age will recall that the playground method of expressing doubt about a schoolmate’s claim was to rub the chin and utter the words “Jimmy Hill”. And at the same time, no one ever seemed less sceptical than Hill, the boundless enthusiast and remorseless optimist who fought such battles as ending the cap on players’ pay, when leading the Professional Footballers’ Association, with no apparent doubt that he would win.

He did win, of course, and primarily for that reason (though there are others) is recognised in death as a character of unrivalled significance in English football’s progression from jumpers-to-goalposts innocence to the plutocracy misleadingly hyped as “the best League in the world”.

Whether he was the immense game-changer of his obituarists’ perception is arguable, the specific argument being the time-honoured top-of-the-debating-society league clash we might style as the Marxist View of History vs the Great Men of History Theory.

The Marxist would argue that, even had Hill never been born the son of a failed bookie (of course his father William failed: how could anyone called William Hill make it in bookmaking?), the sweep of economic history would have ended the maximum wage. That Marxist is right. Even without Hill’s 1961 threat of calling an all-out players’ strike, it seems unlikely that the wage cap and other elements of bonded servitude which afflicted players would have endured. In a post-Thatcherite free-market age, it is a challenge to imagine Wayne Rooney running out for the inflation-adjusted equivalent of £20 per week. For all that, Hill’s unlikely role as a militant trade unionist admired by arch-capitalists speeded the unshackling – and for that alone he deserves to be remembered, in footballing terms, as a great man.

Yet the eulogies celebrating him as a great innovator – pioneer of the slow-motion replay and TV punditry (a mixed blessing, surely, if that); inventor of the all-seater stadium – cannot obscure this one fact: in the 1970s and 80s, when he presented and later did the punditry on Match of the Day, most of us either disliked Jimmy Hill or thought him a buffoon. Or both. Perhaps it had a little to do with the vague resemblance to Dick Dastardly, and more with how adamantly the stridently opinionated Hill stuck by his opinions when they were clearly absurd.

Judging by his relish for the contempt he provoked, he would have enjoyed himself as a social media hate-figure. Long before Katie Hopkins, he cannily appreciated the commercial value of pantomime controversialism. The widespread disdain may also have had a bit to do with his most notable feature. With Bruce Forsyth hosting The Generation Game a few hours before MOTD, BBC1’s Saturday night schedule was quite the chinfest in the 1970s. Since most of us loathed Brucie too, Britain appears to have been a viciously chinist nation back then, long before the liberators of the PC Brigade invaded.

Yet Hill would match Brucie step for step on the long and winding road from national bogeyman to national treasure. Admittedly, it’s a familiar story in a country which venerates sticking power (if you live to ninety here and can eat a boiled egg, as Alan Bennett observed, you’re deemed worthy of the Nobel Prize). But for his foresight, the richness of his life and startling range of achievements – footballer, football manager, football club chairman; TV presenter/rent-a-quote/senior network executive; emergency linesman; Monty Python guest star (as Queen Victoria); businessman; serial bridegroom and father of five; and more besides – Jimmy Hill probably deserved to complete that journey.

I say probably only because he was hardly the angelic figure of his friends’ and former colleagues’ praise. His political views straddled, at best, the borderline between the daftly Blimpish and the hugely offensive. Having tried to lead English footballers on a tour of apartheid South Africa, he later appointed himself lead counsel for the defence after Ron Atkinson’s inadvertent on-air description of Chelsea’s Marcel Desailly as a “fucking lazy thick n*****”. In dismissing that as harmless joshing, Hill equated the use of the N-word to being taunted himself as “chinny”.

So here’s a second paradox. The man praised for being so far ahead of the times football and telly-wise was decades behind them in less trivial areas. Like Forsyth, who defended a Strictly Come Dancing pro who called his celebrity partner “a Paki”, he was stuck in the era of his own maximum fame, when The Black and White Minstrels was sandwiched between their Saturday night shows.

Grand lives such as Jimmy Hill’s must be viewed in the round, however, with one-sided judgements left to those who like summing up the complexities in 140 characters or less. The more aggressive Twitterati would have tried to tear Hill to pieces, and been wildly frustrated when he enjoyed their attentions.

For all the foibles, blind spots and troubling incomprehensions, this was a deceptively smart man with astonishing self-confidence; a formidable operator who branded himself as indelibly on the memory as any sports broadcaster ever did.

One mark of his stature is that, in seeking to pay him homage on Saturday night, Match of the Day proved how gravely it has deteriorated since his day by matching a trite, lazy tribute to an insultingly mawkish piano melody. Engaging and infuriating in equal measure, frequently wrong but seldom dull, Jimmy Hill was bigger and better than that.

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