Jimmy Armfield: The End Of An Era
Reading through the obituaries this morning for the former Blackpool and England captain and broadcaster Jimmy Armfield, who died this morning at the age of eighty-two, it was difficult not to be struck by the tone of the comments made by those who’d enjoyed the privilege of spending time with him. “Kind”, “modest”, “humble” and “gentle” are not, after all, words that are commonly thrown around when we talk about leading figures in the media – or in the game in a general sense, if we’re honest with ourselves – very often. But then again, Jimmy Armfield was hardly the typical professional footballer, and neither was he the typical professional broadcaster.
Throughout the length of his career as a player, a manager and a broadcaster, Armfield always felt like something of a throwback. As a player he was a one club man, running up almost 570 appearances for Blackpool between 1954 and 1971, a reassuring presence at right-back at a club that became one of the casualties of the industrialisation of professional football that took place from the start of the 1960s on. Throughout a sixteen and a half year long career at Bloomfield Road, silverware was thin on the ground. He played in the team that finished as runners-up to Manchester United in the First Division at the end of the 1955/56 season and won promotion to the First Division at the end of the 1969/70 season – the club had been relegated for the first time since the 1930s three years earlier – but otherwise his time with the club was best characterised by loyalty to his club, dependability and consistency. His career as a player ended in May 1971 with a final appearance for Blackpool against Manchester United at Bloomfield Road, a match which, with the Seasiders already relegated from the First Division, would also turn out to be Blackpool’s last in the top flight of the English game for almost forty years.
His international career saw forty-four caps won playing for England between 1959 and 1966, fifteen of them as captain of the team. Having played – and performed well – at the 1962 World Cup finals in Chile, he might have expected a place in Alf Ramsey’s team four years later. Whilst he made the squad for the 1966 World Cup finals, however, an injury sustained at the very ed of the 1963/64 season whilst playing for Blackpool had allowed his place to be taken by George Cohen of Fulham, whilst further injury sustained shortly before the start of the tournament meant that he would take no part in England’s matches in the finals themselves. A campaign to get all players in the squads winners medals led to Armfield being awarded a World Cup winners medal in 2009.
His period as a manager lasted for just seven years. At Bolton Wanderers, he took another former north-western giant a step of the way back towards former glories in getting the club promoted from the Third Division at the end of the 1972/73 season, but this period is probably now best remembered for steadying of a listing ship a couple of years later. It’s difficult to imagine a more calming hand on the tiller than Armfield, and these skills were what he definitely needed when appointed as the new Leeds United manager in October 1974, following Brian Clough’s much talked about and contentious forty-four days in charge of the club following the departure of Don Revie to take the England manager’s job.
Armfield marked his first season at Elland Road by taking Leeds to a European Cup final – in which they were beaten by Bayern Munich in Paris in a match now better remembered for crowd disturbances so serious that Leeds were subsequently banned from playing in all European competitions for four years, although his was later reduced to two years upon appeal following a . Continuing the legacy of Revie with an ageing first team squad proved to be beyond him, although they did reach the semi-finals of both the League Cup and the FA Cup under his tutelage and didn’t finished outside the top ten throughout his four years in charge at Elland Road, and when Leeds replaced him with the former Celtic manager Jock Stein in the summer of 1978 a board of directors still chasing the successes of the Revie era set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the club being relegated at the end of the 1981/82 season.
Following the Leeds job, Armfield settled into a career in the media, the role through which most of us under the age of sixty became most familiar with him. He spent twelve years writing for the Daily Express, but he became best known as a summariser for the BBC, firstly with BBC Radio 2 and then with Radio Five and Five Live. His warm, mellifluous tones defied the many culls of voices that the BBC have undertaken over the last four decades, his continuing presence a tribute in itself to his qualities at explaining a frequently complicated game to a mass audience. His avuncular tone never protected his targets from criticism where warranted, but his thoughtful and insightful tone of voice always allowed the listener the luxury of the belief that we were being addressed personally through his words.
There is a degree of irony in looking back over the career of anyone who never seemed to spend that much time looking back himself. He was a pioneer as a player – an overlapping full-back in era during which the primary role of most defenders was to get rid of the damn ball as quickly as possible – a steadying hand on the tiller as a manager, and a fine broadcaster, the likes of which we’ll likely never see again. It’s easy to dismiss looking back at the past as over-romantic eulogising, but sometimes we should acknowledge that we’ve lost a one of a kind, a voice that made football in this country just a little kinder. We shall not, in all likelihood, get to see too many of his type again.