Jimmy Hill: Union Man, Visionary, Sky Blue Thinker – Part One
This Sunday, the cameras of Sky Sports will be at Sixfields, for the League One match between Coventry City and Sheffield United. A debate is currently going on amongst the supporters of the club over what would be the best way to protest this. The “Not One Penny More” movement has a difficult decision to make. Do they break their own boycott for one match to protest inside the stadium, where the television cameras will broadcast their rage to the nation? Or do they protest outside on the hill that overlooks the ground and run the risk of the cameras missing it altogether? Since the club first moved thirty-five miles from home to play in a different town, Coventry supporters have taken to calling this hill “Jimmy’s Hill”, after the man who not only redefined Coventry City Football Club, but who may also stake a claim for being the most important individual in the entire history of English football.
Jimmy Hill’s career as a player ended in 1961 at the age of thirty-three, having started his career with Brentford before moving to Fulham, where he spent nine years from 1952 on. At the time that Hill’s playing career was coming to an end, the role of the professional footballer was very different to that which players enjoy in the twenty-first century. A maximum wage had first been introduced by the Football League in 1901, but by the 1950s the concept was starting to wear thing, and this rule combined with the “retain and transfer” system of registering players, which placed huge restrictions on players’ freedom of movement between clubs. Hill had been the chairman of the Professional Footballers Association for four years by this point, and saw a window of opportunity to rid the game of the maximum wage, which had long been considered an unfair restraint on players’ potential earnings. In 1960, Hill threatened strike action if the PFA’s demands for the abolition of the minimum wage weren’t met, and with the backing of players it looked as if such action might become a reality before the Football League capitulated and abolished it.
With his playing career over, Hill took over as the manager of Coventry City Football Club and plotted a revolution. He changed the club’s home colours to from white and blue to sky blue and came up with the nickname “The Sky Blues”, oversaw the transformation of the club’s match day programme from a conventional team sheet and little else to a full match day magazine, persuaded the club’s owner to redevelop its Highfield Road stadium and introduced pre-match entertainment. More important than anything than this, though, he was successful on the pitch. Between 1964 and 1967, the club rose from the Third Division to claim a place in the First Division for the first time in its history, and in 1967 a match against the Wolverhampton Wanderers team that would finish the season as runners-up to Hill’s team drew a crowd that was officially recorded as a record 51,455, though some have suggested that the number of people in the ground might have been even higher than this.
Hill left the club in the summer of 1967 to pursue a career in the media, working briefly for the BBC before, in 1968, crossing to the other side to go and work for the newly-formed London Weekend Television as their Head of Sport. London Weekend – the company’s name wouldn’t be truncated to the more recognisable LWT until 1978 – had been surprise winners of a shake-up of ITV a year later. Whilst the company suffered horrific financial losses during its early years, one area in which it did excel was in its transformation of the network’s sports broadcasting. Hill, working alongside the legendary producer John Bromley, oversaw a repositioning of the Saturday afternoon programme World Of Sport, but it was with The Big Match, the company’s flagship football programme, that he would come to transform the nature of football broadcasting in this country.
Whilst the BBC’s Match Of The Day featured forty-five minutes of highlights of one match with no frills, The Big Match was unashamedly big, bold and brassy, with a jazzy theme tune written by one of the unsung heroes of British light music, Keith Mansfield, highlights of three matches from different regions of the ITV network, and with Hill working as an analyst alongside presenter and main commentator Brian Moore. Within three years, Match Of The Day had doubled the number of matches that it broadcast and had new theme music of its own. The show was a huge success, being sold to other companies within the network of ITV regions who didn’t have the technical or financial resources to produce their own equivalent programme, and ITV spotted an opportunity to further revolutionise the nature of football broadcasting for the forthcoming 1970 World Cup finals.
The first finals to be shown live and in colour, Hill and Bromley assembled English football’s first panel of pundits – Malcolm Allison, Derek Dougan, Paddy Crerand and Bob McNab – with Brian Moore anchoring. It was a spectacular success for the commercial broadcasters. Through a fug of cigar smoke and booze, the pundits argued amongst themselves with a degree of freedom that would not be afforded to those working in the football media these days. Malcolm Allison, not a man shy of self-publicity, Allison accused England’s Alan Mullery of being unfit for international football, a verdict which prompted the player to race back to the studio upon his return from Mexico and get involved in a row which row ended with Mullery throwing his England cap at Allison. On another occasion, Allison lit up the switchboards at ITV by claiming saying,”Why are we technically better in Europe? Because we play against peasants, teams who play in primitive ways!” It was raw and it was frequently bigoted, but it was also ratings gold and ITV basked in the much-needed advertising revenue from their success.
Jimmy Hill would stay on at London Weekend for a further four years, with arguably the most famous single of his final years coming during a match between Arsenal and Liverpool at Highbury in 1972 when one of the linesmen pulled a muscle and was unable to continue. Hill, who was there to analyse the match for The Big Match, was a qualified referee and volunteered himself to run the line for the remainder of the match. By the middle of the decade, however, London Weekend was under new ownership and Hill, a man who during his working career seemed to be stuck in a perpetual motion, left the company in 1973 to return to the BBC, this time to work as the anchor himself for Match Of The Day, but although he would now become best known to most people as a television pundit, the man who transformed a football club and the face of football broadcasting in this country forever had plenty more up his sleeve away from the screen.
Part Two of this little story continues tomorrow.
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