Hill’s striking heyday

jimmy-hill2The death of Jimmy Hill, the former football player, manager, chairman, administrator, journalist, pundit, presenter and union leader, has brought back into the spotlight a person who for decades was a ubiquitous face of the sport.

Just one aspect of his influence can be seen in the fact that, even as we speak, a legal action by the world footballers’ trade union FIFPro is seeking to overturn the transfer system  in an even more fundamental manner than the ‘Bosman case’ twenty years ago.

That’s the last you’ll be hearing of that though, because I propose to look at a rather more domestic case from the 1960s, and the literature it inspired: specifically Striking For Soccer by Jimmy Hill (Peter Davies, 1961).

In 1957 Hill, who was at that time a forward for Fulham F.C., became secretary of the Association of Football Players’ and Trainers’ Union (the AFPTU), which he soon renamed the Professional Footballers’ Association to give it a more modern, white-collar flavour. A year later, he was made chairman of the PFA and initiated a campaign against both the maximum wage, which was the rule in the sport at the time, and the retain-and-transfer system, which effectively tied a player to a club even after his contract had expired.jimmy-hill-striking

He was, of course, to go on to become a famed and innovative broadcaster and television executive, a football manager, chairman and administrator, a businessman and an all-purpose celebrity. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, therefore, that a book that starts as an account of the PFA’s industrial and legal fight with the Football League features plenty of digressions into its author’s opinions on coaching, newspapers’ coverage of the game, and why he shaved off his beard.

The most astonishing thing about this book is that I wrote it myself. In our modern space age, where ghosts are no longer supposed to exist, but really do, this in itself is surprising. Not that I am against ghosted books – for what can be better than the blending of the journalistic skill of a writer and the knowledge of a sporting expert for the enjoyment of the public? In this case it was only my grim determination to go it alone that persuaded me to make it ‘all my own work’. I did this, realising that its language and content might provide a better argument for the ghosting of sportsmen’s stories than any other.

Thus Jimmy opens the book, preparing readers for an opinionated tract. ‘I want to point out the things that are wrong with football in this country,’ he avows. In the potted autobiography which follows, he rightly pointed out that his home town Balham has been made famous by Peter Sellers (which makes it a pity that he didn’t start with the words: ‘I wrote this book manually, which is to say, once a year’).

Hill worked in insurance before becoming a professional footballer, and it was his ‘office experience’ that first got him a role as the union rep at his then club Brentford. In 1955 he joined the national committee of management ‘because I had spoken so forcibly’ in favour of the re-election of PFA chairman Jimmy Guthrie at their AGM, and 12 months later he took the helm himself.

Immediately, he modestly records, he earned a reputation as an effective advocate for players at disciplinary hearings ‘almost acting as a Counsel, lacking, of course, his professional knowledge’. This was the days before footballers – who, as we shall see, were not so well remunerated in those days – began to hire actual lawyers in such cases.

By chapter two (‘Gauntlet thrown down’), Jimmy is leading the above-mentioned fights against the maximum wage and ‘retain and transfer’, which despite the help of the Ministry of Labour, and the minister himself, a Mr Hare – no informalities here – met resistance from the Football League. A disappointing wage offer in November 1960 encouraged hitherto placid footballers into protest, alerting fans to their case, ‘Before, I am sure the public thought the basis of our struggle was Jimmy Hill and his soapbox – that I was always shooting my mouth off about something or other,’ writes Jimmy.

Three days before a proposed strike, the football authorities agreed to the abolition of the £20 weekly maximum wage (allowing Fulham chairman Tommy Trinder to pay star man Johnny Haynes £100 a week), but was followed by a ‘Great Betrayal’ (the title of chapter five) in April 1961, when League clubs opted not to ratify the other part of the deal, the end of ‘retain and transfer’:

I did not foresee that the Football League would act in this way in the face of Parliamentary displeasure, antagonistic public opinion and the lashes of their employees over a point which many of the more progressive chairmen and managers accept as principle, anyway. Again Mr Hare, Minister of Labour, in the House, made the position quite clear. On Monday 26 January 1961, he said: ‘No final settlement has been reached because the AGM of the Football League on the 3 June decided not to implement the agreement in full.’

Having concentrated on the dispute for the first five of the 17 chapters, Jimmy’s account stops as he had come up to the time of writing: the book was authored while the PFA and the League were still at loggerheads. It would be a further two years before freedom of contract was established by the High Court, but prospective readers need not to worry, as Jimmy has plenty to say on the wider world of football.

First, though, he explained why he shaved the beard off his proverbially sizeable chin. He originally grew it because:

I happen to be very fond of goldfish and think the most relaxing way of spending a spare ten minutes is to watch them wriggling and plunging about in a pond. At the bottom of my garden I have a pond with 20 goldfish in it. I used to like nothing better than to go down in the morning … to stand and stare at the fish. Gradually as life became busier, with more responsibility, I began to find less and less time to watch them.

The only part of his morning routine that was expendable was shaving, so Hill ditched it. ‘Those of you who still shave may find it more enjoyable than watching goldfish,’ he scoffs. ‘I’ll stick to my beliefs.’ (Not quite adding: ‘Here I stand, I can say no other.’)

Of course ‘vanity’ came into it: ‘I happened to figure that the Hill face would be more pleasant to look upon with a beard than without one. I still think I was on the beam.’ (Two bonus points there for referring to himself in the third person – again – and for the use of the phrase ‘on the beam’, which may have been archaic if it was ever extant in the first place).

That made him the only bearded footballer at a time when most players were expected to be bare chinned and indeed advertise razors (note the plate photographs in the middle of the book of team-mates Mel Charles and Tommy Banks ‘with acknowledgements to Remington and Gillette’). Such eccentricity made him a media personality, ‘the beatnik with a ball’ or ‘Mephistopheles running wild’, two epithets used by the papers. As a football writer, I find myself using such phases all the time even today.


That out of the way, Jimmy writes: ‘This chapter is a mixture of fun, superstition and odd little items in this book, rather like the frills on a petticoat.’ (Try as I might, I cannot find any chapter starting that way in Steven Gerrard’s recent My Story.) He addresses ‘the kissing and cuddling of goalscorers by their team-mates’, where he admitted ‘critics argue, of course, that there is too much of this “petting” on the field’. Jimmy, however, is generally in favour, but soon drifts on to the subject of gamesmanship, timewasting and the like.

‘Luckily, our teams have not arrived at the stage already reached abroad,’ he sniffs, before swiftly jumping on to the question of image rights for player photographs, warning that they might be forced to form their own picture agency – a scenario in which, he says, the press would face the consequences of their ‘injustice to the very animals whose blood they suck’.

Next in Jimmy’s sights are ticket prices, which he says are ‘far too low’. And again he sticks it to the press: ‘if the tickets for the Cup Final were raised to 7/6, I can imagine sportswriters knocking over their bottles of vitriol in their excitement and anxiety to put pen to paper’. And as for players splashing out on ‘motor cars’: ‘No one objects to Liberace’s Cadillac. Why should they object to Danny Blanchflower’s Rapier?’

The second half of the book contains more such musings, and expertly crafted phrases, as Hill ranges through an impressive diversity of subjects – refereeing; being misquoted by journalists; footballers writing their own newspaper columns (‘Chefs write, butlers write, Gilbert Harding wrote … the public want to read the opinions of a footballer on his own game’); why the England manager should also get to pick the team (not the case until Alf Ramsey was appointed two years later); why talented children need professional coaching; and the influence of club directors on the picking of certain players (allowing the manager ‘scotch and consolation in the boardroom’ if he complies).

There is also a chapter titled ‘Hello Haynes-haters’ in which he blames the BBC for biased coverage of the much-vaunted £100-a-week man: ‘It would not be long before someone took a shot at goal in a match, scoring on ITV and missing on BBC,’ he quoted himself as saying in a speech.

In the final chapter, ‘I would like to see’, Jimmy suggests how we could stop football ‘dying on its feet’ as we went on into the 1960s, while it flourished ‘for all we know, in Asia and Africa’. First of all, he proposes a ‘Super League’ above the Football League’s first division:

I see no reason why we should not glamourise our sport. Let us call it a Super, Magnificent, All Star, Top Rate, Colossal League, featuring the greatest players drawn from the length and breadth of the land, in weekly competition. Let us present a football match, rather than just putting it on; find ways to gild the lily. Let us see it as a business where failure means starvation.

Let’s pause here… the Premier League and Sky Sports were still 31 years away.

Then he proposes a winter break to allow players and pitches to refresh themselves (not yet introduced in England), and suggests that the Football Association introduce professional qualifications for coaches (as they since have) and that matches to be regularly played under floodlights and moved for television coverage (after all, ‘television has already done a great deal to create interest in minority sports, such as show-jumping’). He’s also in favour of making stadiums more comfortable so ‘men and women can enjoy watching together’.

In short, Jimmy Hill in 1961 eloquently anticipated a large number of the issues that would determine the future of British football. In fact, he was responsible for realising much of this vision. Forced to retire from playing later that year due to injury, he became manager of Coventry City, introducing innovative coaching techniques like training at the time their next game was going to be played (rather than at 10am each day even if the forthcoming game was an evening kick-off). He arranged too for the stadium to be modernised, and introduced pre-match entertainment and match programmes.

After leading Coventry from the third to first division, he moved full time into television, having already tried his hand as a pundit for his old friends the BBC in the 1966 World Cup. From 1968 to 1972 he was London Weekend Television’s head of sport (he brought in the novel idea of a panel of analysts) and, following a move back to the Beeb, remained a presenter and pundit until 1998. Meanwhile, in the late 1970s, as managing director of Coventry, he became a senior figure in the Football League, introducing three points for a win (rather than two) to encourage positive play,artwork-jimmy-hill

Admittedly, Hill’s footballing legacy isn’t necessarily all positive. Towards the end of his time on television he became at times a self-parody, notably when suggesting in the 1998 World Cup that the Romania team all bleaching their hair had helped them identify each other. In 1982 he also led a boycott-boycotting tour of apartheid South Africa, and in 2004 he suggested Ron Atkinson using the n-word to describe a black player should be no ‘more of an offence than someone calling me chinny’.

Rightly, though, those aberrations are outweighed in any account of Hill’s life by the volume of areas where just one man was able to influence or at least predict the construction of the behemoth of modern football, as pretty much set out in Striking for Soccer. Did I mention he introduced shirt sponsorship? Or electronic scoreboards? Whatever your view on what soccer has become in 2015, Jimmy Hill saw that football had the potential to grow to such an extent, and did much to bring it about in England.

He was absent from the public eye in his final years due to Alzheimer’s disease but, for all his faults, few individuals have had quite the influence over football as the goldfish-loving former insurance man who was so often ‘on the beam’.

Striking for Soccer was first published in 1961, but in this article I have referred to the 1963 edition, courtesy of the Sportsmans Book Club, which can be joined for 5s 9d per month, plus 1s postage and packing.

One thought on “Hill’s striking heyday

  1. Pingback: Brexit and the Beautiful Game | Lion & Unicorn

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