Obituary: Jimmy Hill, football and broadcaster

Footballer and Coventry legend turned TV presenter who helped modernise the game. Picture: Aubrey Hart/Getty
Footballer and Coventry legend turned TV presenter who helped modernise the game. Picture: Aubrey Hart/Getty
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Born: 22 July, 1928, in Balham, London. Died: 19 December, in Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex, aged 87.

The scene is the Spanish city of Malaga during the World Cup finals of 1982. Scotland are playing New Zealand and will win 5-2.

During the match, some Scottish fans spot BBC commentator Jimmy Hill and launch into familiar ditties questioning Hill’s dress sense and sexuality – it was the 1980s, after all. In his brightly lit eyrie, Hill breaks off from speaking to start conducting the fans.

In the very next match, Hill describes David Narey’s fantastic goal against Brazil as a “toe poke”, thus sealing the supposed enmity between the nascent Tartan Army and the commentator.

It was all in fun, however, and Hill happily played along, even joining the BBC Scotland team before the opening match of the 1998 World Cup after he had retired from the screen.

His death at the age of 87 from Alzheimer’s Disease has occasioned many tributes to Hill – including one from the Tartan Army – and they are all deserved, because without any doubt whatsoever, Jimmy Hill changed football.

Born the son of a First World War veteran, William Hill, who worked as a milkman and his wife Alice, Jimmy was educated at Henry Thornton Grammar School to which he won a scholarship. Mrs Hill had been married before and had two children from that marriage. The family suffered tragedy when both Hill’s half-sister and half-brother were killed in accidents.

A boyhood fan of Crystal Palace, Hill blossomed as a footballer after school where the game had not been favoured. He found a job as a stockbroker’s clerk in the City, but left to do his National Service in the Royal Army Service Corps. Remarkably, there were nine professional footballers in his unit, and he would later credit them for sparking his interest in football as a career.

In 1949, after playing for non-league club Folkestone, he was offered a professional contract with Brentford of the then Second Division. He played two full seasons with them, one of his colleagues being future England manager Ron Greenwood.

Fulham signed Hill for a reported £25,000 in 1952 and he soon cemented a place in midfield behind the likes of Bobby Robson and Johnny Haynes. Powerfully built but limited in skill, Hill was the sort of midfield enforcer other better players relied on, though he later became a forward, once scoring 25 goals in a season.

Off the field, Hill was rising through the ranks of the players’ union, the Professional Footballers Association (PFA). He became its chairman in 1957 and soon began the campaign that would change British football, arguing that the maximum wage of £20 a week should be scrapped. The best players went abroad where there were no salary caps, or were paid bonuses under the table. Hill showed his negotiating skills by taking the Football League to the brink of a strike in 1961 before it gave in and scrapped the wage limit. Two years later the PFA won again with another Hill-inspired campaign, this time ending the right of clubs to hold on to a player’s registration after contracts were up – freedom of movement that presaged the famous Bosman ruling of 30 years later.

His teammate Johnny Haynes famously became Britain’s first £100 a week player, just as Hill’s own playing career ended when he suffered a knee injury. Hill had shrewdly realised that playing careers were short and had already taken his coaching exams.

In November, 1961, Hill was appointed manager of Coventry City in the Third Division, and immediately showed his determination to modernise the game for the fans. He brought commercial sponsorship to Highfield Road, devised the innovations of pre-match entertainment, introduced full colour match programmes, changed the team’s colours to sky blue and even wrote the club song, while on the field Coventry enjoyed success, reaching the First Division in 1967.

Hill wanted a ten-year contract, the club offered five, so he quit Coventry and having had his appetite whetted by numerous appearances on television, he briefly joined the BBC as an adviser to a football series before becoming head of sport at London Weekend Television.

There he introduced such mainstays of modern coverage such as pundits and panel discussions during the 1970 World Cup, and two years after that he returned to the BBC to present Match of the Day where he pioneered the use of slow-motion replays. His long chin and beard plus his willingness to challenge football orthodoxy made him a cult figure on a programme that sometimes attracted 12 million viewers.

In 1972, he caused a minor sensation when he came out of the stand to act as a linesman when an official was injured during an Arsenal v Liverpool match – Hill had quietly undertaken referee qualifications to know more about the game.

While still presenting Match of the Day, Hill returned to Coventry in 1975 as managing director and then chairman, making Highfield Road the first all-seated football stadium in the country. Later he became chairman of Fulham and hauled it from perilous debt while securing the future of its Craven Cottage ground.

His longest lasting and most transforming innovation was while he was chairman at Coventry. To encourage attacking football, he proposed to the Football League the introduction of a new points system of three for a win and one for a draw, instead of two points for a win and nil for a draw.

It was an immediate success, and within 15 years, almost every football association plus Fifa and Uefa had adopted the system.

In 1999, Hill left the BBC for Sky where he presented his Sunday Supplement programme for seven years.

In retirement, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2008 and was latterly in a nursing home.

He was inducted into the English Football Hall of fame in 2009 and in July, 2011, a statue of him was unveiled outside Coventry’s Ricoh Arena, City’s fans having raised the money for the tribute to a major figure in their club and football generally.

Hill married three times, to Gloria, with whom he had three children Duncan, Graham, and Alison and then Heather, with whom he had two children, Jamie and Joanna. His third marriage was in 1991 to Bryony.

Jimmy Hill is to be cremated at a private ceremony, but a public service will be held in the new year.