Big Match Action: Jimmy Hill 1928-2015

Big Match Action: Jimmy Hill 1928-2015


Jimmy Hill changed things. As a player, as a union representative, as a manager and as a chairman, but also and perhaps most visibly in a broadcasting career spanning forty-plus years, where he used his prominence and position to instigate new ideas and push forward proposals and ideals of how the game should be approached to make it better for everyone. Hill had the strength of character, partially forged through his dealings with the PFA and assorted chairman, not to mind sounding pompous or playing up to that easily acquired “outspoken” tag, though he welcomed the hostility that often came his way in later years on the BBC as proof his passion for the game and expressing strong opinions through that would have that affect. He was a man who often thought there had to be a better, more forward thinking, way, a long time advocate of modernity in the way football should be presented and governed, and someone who had the vision to want people to see football in a more technically minded fashion. It made him mocked, he occasionally came across as confrontational (sometimes seemingly for the sake of it or through outmoded thought), but he got his image across and that was what mattered to him, you felt.

Aside from being “Fulham’s famous bearded inside-right shaving his beard off with the new Remington” in 1959, Hill’s first TV work seems to have been summarising at the 1964 FA Cup final for ITV alongside commentator Gerry Loftus, a position that essentially meant being introduced three or four times a match for passing comment on the standard and direction of play. He was certainly a keen advocate for television at a time when clubs distrusted what it might do to attendances and personnel – in his 1961 book  Striking For Soccer, a personal manifesto for how the game could be improved, one of his key points was that television would play a major role in the sport’s development before long, suggesting one match from each weekend’s fixture list be moved forward and played in front of the cameras on Friday nights. Hill particularly seems to have been interested in the possibilities of the commercial service as it spread its regionalised wings, reputedly taking his Coventry his players to Norwich one Sunday in January just to watch Swindon, whom they were facing in the FA Cup the following weekend, play Peterborough on Anglia’s reputable Sunday afternoon highlights show Match Of The Week. It was the BBC that gave him his first regular work, making the odd comment and interview as part of the 1966 World Cup team.

This was the first time a sustained bank of experts, ten in total – Tommy Docherty, Johnny Haynes and Danny Blanchflower joined Hill in covering the final itself – had been hired for a major event, described in the Radio Times as “a panel of soccer personalities whose knowledge of football is such as to throw valuable light on the events of the day”. By his own admission Hill wasn’t required to work a lot but producer Alec Weeks would commend the way he had spotted Argentina’s rough-house tactics within five minutes of the kickoff of England’s quarter-final match that featured Antonio Rattin’s sending off, and his interest in the inner workings of television coverage came in useful further down the line.

Hill continued keeping a keen eye on the game’s development on screen, including acting as football advisor for the BBC soap United!, although he soon had his name taken off the credits after he found out the dialogue he had put forward wasn’t being used. In March 1967 Coventry vs Bolton was featured on Match Of The Day and Hill supplied half time analysis directly to camera, hoping “that in the second half we should be able to spread the game out a little more. I felt we closed in, the wingers came in a bit too tight, although it did lead to the goal, but in the second half playing with the wind we can spread our game out.” The match finished 1-1.

After getting City promoted at the end of that season Hill resigned after falling out with the board, and just before 1967-68 began Michael Peacock stepped in. Peacock, who had been the first controller of BBC2 and then moved to BBC1 to snatch the initiative away from ITV, had in 1967 been headhunted to become the first managing director of London Weekend Television. He was made aware that the young manager with TV experience who’d just been made redundant had clear thoughts and ambitions regarding the scope of football coverage, and in a meeting offered Hill the job of head of sport at LWT. The new franchise didn’t actually launch for another year, having just won the contract from ATV, which gave Hill ample time to work on his ideas and build a team. World Of Sport’s John Bromley was hired as executive producer, Anglia’s visionary producer Bob Gardam moved down the country to become regular match producer/director after a personal recommendation from Hill’s friend and Anglia commentator John Camkin, and the commentary position vacated when ATV’s Hugh Johns relocated to the Midlands was filled by BBC radio’s Brian Moore, Hill outvoting Bromley’s favoured candidate Barry Davies. Hill, being Hill, had personally favoured Moore, he told him, because “you don’t offend anyone”, and then offered him three and a half times as much a year as he’d been getting at the Beeb. Meanwhile an accounts department junior with big ideas called Mike Murphy worked himself into an elevated position by cornering Hill and Bromley one day to tell them how the department should be run. Murphy would join the BBC a year after Hill and would in 1977 become the youngest ever editor of Match Of The Day, credited with developing more viewer-friendly camera angles for live match coverage and promoting use of the white ball. Hill was clearly a man who understood his underlings.

Jimmy’s actual first credit on LWT programming came from the drama department and with the preface “from an idea by”. Willis Hall, the playwright best known for adapting Billy Liar for the stage, had as a Fulham fan become friends with Hill, who in turn got to pitch an idea to him “about how a Cup final ticket changes hands in a succession of shady deals before it is finally presented at the Wembley turnstile”. The resultant one-act playlet, The Ticket, was broadcast in August 1968. LWT couldn’t actually back it up with action for the first couple of weeks due to a technician’s strike. That wasn’t the only early setback – the company’s first major sporting output, cricket’s Gillette Cup final, was taken off air having overrun with one over remaining, and star presenter of sporting magazine show Sports Arena Michael Parkinson had to be convinced not to quit – but when The Big Match eventually made it to air one Sunday afternoon a refreshing change in the usual way of presenting football action was evident with its reduction in self-conscious gravitas.

While Moore’s enthusiastically unhurried, authoritative but still simpler style represented an easing up of the officious style of a Wolstenholme, Hill, using the additional time at hand and with the aid of the country’s first slow motion replay machine – the Ampex HS100, which cost LWT £60,000 they could barely afford – grabbed the expert’s role with both hands, making a point of attending the main game covered each week so he would be better prepared to use the footage to analyse and point out how a goal had been created, really for the first time on television. A player who had performed well in the main game would often be invited into the studio to run through the goals themselves and chat about how their team’s season was progressing. After that and one or two games of note borrowed from the other regions, Hill would occasionally offer suggestions on coaching tips or what changes could be made to the game, one week devoting five minutes to suggesting where referees and linesmen should stand while penalties were taken.

Sometimes such one-man attempts to right every wrong and a few others besides bordered on the do-gooding, but more often than not it was with the spirit of the game and its understanding on all fronts in mind. As Moore would later put it, “he would take a couple of minutes to examine a passage of play and explain why a move was important. People were saying, ‘I didn’t realise that’. In five minutes on a Sunday afternoon the old boy changed the whole emphasis of football on television.” Hill for his part was reluctant to keep his opinions to himself when there was something he thought had to be said or some way of improving things, just as he had when learning the entire laws of the game so he could better represent players looking to get sendings-off overturned while acting as their union rep. Referring to a much later sparring partner, he would muse on his style “provoking argument is important. I agree with Alan (Hansen) nine times out of ten, but because I’m a journalist I pick the tenth point and we have a ding-dong. I have a passion for (football) and I get upset if there is something I don’t like.”

So immediately highly thought of were the pair that when ITV landed exclusive rights to an England friendly in Mexico Moore and Hill flew to the Azteca Stadium for the atmosphere, only for Hill’s introduction to be drowned out by a marching band and Moore to be placed in a tiny glass cubicle on a scorchingly hot day positioned so when Mexico attacked everyone stood up and he couldn’t see a thing. Moore did have another regular show, On The Ball as much a ITV national network vehicle for Moore as anything, Hill chipping in with background and analysis as the series’ length was consistently extended throughout the season to go up against the BBC’s new Football Preview.

In January 1970, surely with Hill’s willingness to call things straight in mind, the FA held a meeting with television representatives in which they were warned not to let their commentators make controversial statements lest their highlighting of refereeing decisions and player indiscipline “put an intolerable burden on the disciplinary committees”, as the Mirror put it. Still, the forward thinking attitude of all at LWT and the shock of the new undoubtedly led to a great resurgence in ITV’s fortunes, and while the BBC still held the viewing figure upper hand the gap for that year’s Home Internationals was said to be as short at 6:5.

By the time the Mexico World Cup came around executive producer John Bromley recognised the value of Moore and Hill together, even though it meant keeping Brian in London and away from commentary duties. With a press disagreement between the BBC and ITV having simmered in recent months regarding the way games were being shared out it’s not unlikely that Hill and Bromley entered into planning their coverage in a fighting mood, ensuring that as far as ITV were concerned the main action wasn’t taking place in Mexico per se. Whether, as is often stated, ITV won more viewers than the BBC for the only time during a World Cup is debatable – independent figures released that October claim ITV had merely a 45% share of all viewers – but it certainly won the popular vote. Maybe some of that was due to the novelty of the Moore and Hill combination at their first big event on the network, but the lasting image is of the four combustible personalities who joined them.

Although Hill would occasionally claim credit, and is certainly attributed to it now, it’s widely agreed that it was Bromley who did most of the spadework in booking a combustible permanent panel of four men – Malcolm Allison, Pat Crerand, Derek Dougan and Bob McNab – who he knew would add a brand new spontaneous approach to how it was discussed on air, that of the passionate, controversial, outspoken even. Bromley, who also had the masterstroke of promising LWT would foot all hotel bar bills, openly referred to his aim as “pub talk”, only here with men of credibility and a level of collective knowledge evident even when the arguments were at their fiercest. The man who would be attempting to anchor their disputes down was a man whose writer friend Hunter Davies would later claim not entirely in jest “would rather hear a respectful rendition of Abide With Me from the crowd (before the FA Cup final) than see a good match.” Often sporting a cravat as if he wanted to be perceived as an intellectual superior to the rabble before him, Hill chipped in occasionally but it was chiefly Moore’s job to keep it together. There was a great deal of contrivance for televisual purposes going on, of course, and more than a little in hock to ITV’s grand later tradition of light entertainment influence on their sporting coverage, but onlookers loved it just the same. The Times’ John Hennessy saw it as “the overall picture as of a body of enthusiasts enthusing in public. They have set a new standard and pattern for football on television.” The fallout continued into the following domestic season when Hill chaired a fractious live meeting between Allison and Alan Mullery, whom Big Mal had personally criticised throughout the tournament. Combustible and deep-rooted the Big Match approach certainly was.

While the football end of the operation was innovating and dominating LWT as a company was living through interesting times. Michael Peacock and the London Weekend board had had a falling out over standards of programming and manpower, and as scapegoat he was sacked in September 1969. Six executives resigned a week later in protest. Hill, who had been thankful to Peacock for offering his unwavering support in all senses to the sport department, found rights holders were less willing to negotiate with ITV given the intransigence of the rest of the network, not to mention the basic thought they could trust the established BBC more than the upstart independent channel and its constituent upstart parts. By 1971 the LWT executive musical chairs were still going on, partly at the instigation of new chairman Rupert Murdoch, and Hill now found himself in the middle of it all. In February of that year he became controller of press and public relations; come May and a few more resignations when LWT’s lofty ideals weren’t matching the projected figures Hill, as one of two surviving senior staff members from the launch team, found himself in the position of deputy controller of programming, holding both of his new posts as well as maintaining his roles as head of sport and onscreen talent until the end of 1972. Somewhere in the middle he found time to write Good Old Arsenal, penned overnight after a Big Match competition to write a new Arsenal song to the tune of Land Of Hope And Glory had fallen foul of the Elgar Society enforcing copyright. Alongside all that workload he would put his name and opinions to a weekly column in the Times, establishing such a strong a working relationship with his ghostwriter Martin Tyler that he convinced the young journalist to take a role in The Big Match’s production team.

16th September 1972 was meant to be a regular working Saturday for Jimmy Hill, observing Arsenal v Liverpool so as to improve his approach the following day. Twenty minutes into the match, however linesman Dennis Drewett managed to tear a thigh muscle and was unable to continue. After a full quarter of an hour an SOS had to be issued for any qualified officials in the crowd. No response was forthcoming for some time until Hill happened to mention to a colleague he was watching the game with that he at least knew the rules. Hill would claim that he only put his name forward because he would be more comfortable in the spotlight than most but in truth Hill seems to have needed little cajoling. Regardless his impromptu appointment was approved by both managers and referee Pat Partridge – something of an emergency change of heart given not far short of a year earlier Partridge had accused Hill of condoning the actions via On The Ball of a group sending him abusive letters after he let Stoke’s Terry Conroy get away with concussing West Ham goalkeeper Bobby Ferguson in a collision. A turquoise tracksuit and a pair of boots a size too small were found and Hill was assigned the red flag. It was widely agreed in the following morning’s papers, and on the following afternoon’s television, that while the necessary delay had taken the sting out of the game, which ended goalless, there had been no significant mistakes by the new appointee.

Two months later, some rather more glamorous work came Hill’s way. Raquel Welch was in London on film promotion business and through nefarious means, not least Welch suddenly declaring a desire to see Peter Osgood play, he – a bearded, overly chinned, self-regarding former Coventry manager – got to accompany the great beauty of the day to Stamford Bridge for Leicester City’s visit. A quickly mounted camera crew – the 1-1 draw wasn’t the featured game of that week’s programme – saw Hill explain the technical points of the game to his charge and Welch offer that a lot of women could do much worse than go to football matches and see prime athleticism. Welch would on parting offer Hill the job of her European handler, but he claims to have turned her down cited existing commitments.

Not that sticking to the job in hand wasn’t leading him down new alleyways and careers, as come that season’s FA Cup third round morning Moore went down with flu and Hill had to stand in as commentator with little preparation as Chelsea won at Brighton, a game featuring two sendings-off and some decidedly pro-am work from behind the mike – as players from both sides clashed towards the end, leading to one of the dismissals, Hill was heard to bemoan “they’re going through the motions of fighting, but it looks so bad… it seems so senseless.” He never tried commentary again.

Familiarity may breed contempt – and a cursory glance at tabloid sports letters pages of the day will reveal Hill especially, but pundits in general, were by no means popular by their mere presence – and in the spirit of adventure not everything worked, but there seems a definite commitment towards doing something with the medium, and a large part of that was The Big Match establishing its position at the heart of the independent network’s understanding of the game through Moore’s light touch as host and authoritative streak in the commentary box, the advances in understanding what was being presented and at the very core of the programme, the indefatigable hand of Jimmy Hill. What could possibly make LWT and their ambitions falter?

On February 9th 1973 it was announced that, from the start of the following season, Jimmy Hill was moving to the BBC.

Both contemporaneously and subsequently, Hill has maintained that his move across the channels had nothing to do with dissatisfaction with The Big Match, the boardroom level manoeuvrings at LWT or the pay packet – a figure has never been confirmed but £20,000 a year has been floated, a decent raise on what he was being paid by London Weekend despite all his positions held – as much as a keenness to be seen by a wider public. Talking to the Mirror’s Frank Taylor in May just before making his BBC presenting debut at the European Cup final, while expressing sadness at leaving Moore behind Hill averred “I have been frustrated at times with a localised role… some of the things which needed to be said deserved a nationwide audience.” Bromley later admitted “one of Jimmy’s problems, I think, when he was with us, was that he appeared on The Big Match, which only went basically to the southern part of England. So when he travelled to the Midlands, or when he travelled to the North, they said “What are you doing these days, Jim?”, and he said, “I’m on the telly.” They said, “Well, we never see you.” And that irked him a bit.” In fact Hill’s agent had been sounding out the BBC for some months before they made an offer and LWT didn’t stand in his way, although the deal was nearly thrown into jeopardy when a Labour MP tabled a demand for the government to impose an order preventing the BBC making such a large financial offer. The minister of state and employment heard and rejected the call.

As well as Match Of The Day, which got him on the Radio Times cover in his first week, the new role would require Hill to get up to speed with autocue for the first time and prepare a sporting insert into Nationwide on Friday nights. Along with existing head of sport Sam Leitch and new editor Jonathan Martin, Hill worked up a new way of presenting highlights that may still be without proper equal, in which the host would also spend time expertly analysing the game. Taking up Saturday nights to examine the fine detail deeper than most upset Sunday newspaper journalists but brought Hill a new level of respect to go along with his increased stature. Not everything clicked, as Barry Davies might have agreed when brought in after the first game of the season to not only review the game’s highlights with the benefit of time and replay but also to analyse his own performance afresh, but it felt invigorating after years of David Coleman spending as little time as possible in the studio, including during the programme. On top of that Hill still attended as many main games as he could, though the BBC four-seater plane bought for Coleman and transferred to his colleagues and successor was decommissioned after January 1974, after Hill inadvertently mentioned a bumpy flight to Liverpool on air and viewers complained about such opulence in the midst of a petrol strike and the three day week.

Nevertheless the BBC now had added impetus and entered a golden age, Coleman being phased out of football commentary as John Motson and Barry Davies made their names and Bob Wilson joined as full-time host of the Saturday lunchtime preview show now renamed Football Focus. In 1978 Hill and the two commentators appeared on the cover of the Radio Times to mark its 500th programme, and that year’s memorable title sequence involved a crowd of schoolchildren some two thousand strong, arranged in one of the stands at QPR’s Loftus Road, holding up cards depicting a variety of related images finishing with Hill’s own grinning visage. With some of the pressure of other jobs taken off him – he took only an expert role on the 1974 and 1978 World Cup coverage, Frank Bough being used as frontman – Hill seemed at constant ease while still within his quest to argue against and help understand the game. Off-air he took up a backup firefighting role in the almost constant battles between broadcasters and club chairmen over TV rights negotiations and sponsorship, at one point announcing out of frustration with advertising regulation arguments that his own club would be changing their name from the start of the following season to Coventry Talbot, the FA steadfastly refusing to so much as register the request. Such proactiveness nearly backfired when the Football League committee overseeing television negotiations took libel action against him which had ended up in the High Court after he accused them of acting illegally in the immediate wake of their facilitation of Snatch Of The Day, LWT’s failed underhand 1978 attempt to take all TV coverage for themselves. Nearly four years later he officially apologised and withdrew the claim, then had to apologise to the BBC for causing embarrassment in order to keep his job with them, having been involved as consultant with a sanctions-defying tour to South Africa without the knowledge or approval of the FA.

One upshot of that rights dispute saw the two channels swap slots, with Match Of The Day ending up on Sunday afternoons for two seasons, Hill enjoying the freedom to work on his observations the extra preparation time gave him (Wilson was given an increased news desk role alongside him to further free up his obligations), the technical staff less so as they had to figure out a new way of approaching their task. He also finally got to travel out for a World Cup in 1982 as co-linkman and co-commentator, this the tournament where he earned the continued enmity of Scotland fans when David Narey put them ahead against Brazil and Jimmy ventured “it might have been a toe poke”. Match Of The Day returned permanently to Saturday nights in 1983, ITV having failed with their attempt at keeping attention so much at least one regional head of sport declared they’d never try for the Saturday slot ever again, and with it came the reveal of Hill’s bare chin. Compering a charity auction organised by the National Advertising Benevolent Society that had raised £97,000 he announced on the spur of the moment that if someone made up the extra £3,000 he would shave his beard off there and then, and the Gillette representatives took him at his word.

As the Eighties drew on Hill, while never letting up on the courage of his convictions, started to wane slightly. The BBC live coverage of the Heysel tragedy was much criticised, Hill having started with a comedic link-up with Terry Wogan while news of deaths was already known. Unsure where events were heading or if the match was still due to take place, Hill and studio guests could only work round what they knew and pontificate. Always susceptible to heavy duty moralising, Jimmy made repeated suggestions for the reintroduction of national service, to which one Radio Times correspondent would fume “does he really want to degrade the British armed forces?” Bobby Charlton for his part called for the return of corporal punishment, whereas Terry Venables settled for holding such finals in cities where heavily armed police could wade in first. One reference by a shell-shocked Barry Davies to “British football hooligans” apparently jammed the switchboard with complaints from Scottish viewers, which Hill did little to quell when he complained such people were trying to “score national points” and their own Tartan Army had proved themselves little better. When later challenged on his assertion Hill didn’t exactly help by remarking that Scots were “much better mannered (than English hooligans) but they do enjoy a dig at the old enemy”. There had been a minor outbreak of trouble at a Scotland v England game Hill had co-commentated on four days earlier but given what had just transpired it seemed a peculiar way to hand off the blame.

In 1988 the BBC lost League rights to ITV and Hill stepped aside from presenting in favour of Des Lynam to concentrate on punditry alone. Both were present at Hillsborough the following April, Hill being one of the first people to publicly suggest the tragedy had been caused by a problem with entry gates on that night’s Match Of The Day special. For his last decade on BBC football coverage, although he continued to work on Match Of The Day until the advent of the Premier League, Jimmy’s role was chiefly that of England cheerleader, sporting a cross of St George bow tie in his latter years, bringing new impetus to his belief it had to be told like it is. That led to him working up a punditry double act with Terry Venables, whom everyone agrees was a friend offscreen but he rarely saw eye to eye with when watching matches, often disagreeing over tactical analysis and what all involved needed to do as Lynam asked just the right probing questions when he could get a word in edgeways.

It wasn’t just colleagues whose buttons he pushed – on criticising Graham Taylor for England’s underwhelming start to the 1992 European Championships and mentioning players paid too much for too little effort, Taylor told Hill it was his fault for creating the monster in his role abolishing the maximum wage and asked him as Fulham chairman if he was sure he wasn’t paying players more than he should or else he had no right to comment. Taylor had also snapped at Elton Welsby on ITV around this time, but Hill’s angle of attack reflected his latter opinion that football matches couldn’t be seen in a vacuum, an early adopter of tracing England problems to youth training flaws and expressing hooliganism and badly behaved players in terms of wider social problems.

Hill remained with the BBC until after the 1998 World Cup, the tournament in which he saw the Romanian team all dying their hair blonde as a tactical masterstroke and was willing to argue the toss over Ronaldo’s role in the final. On returning to England he joined Sky Sports to marshall a group of journalists every Sunday morning in Jimmy Hill’s Sunday Supplement, very occasionally adding his thoughts for England matches in his early years there, until retiring in 2007. It’s not stretching it a huge amount to suggest the analysis innovations for which Sky Sports has made its reputation over the Premier League era can be traced back to the quest for information and debate facilitated by him three decades earlier.

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