Presenter of Match of the Day and former footballer who played a key role in the scrapping of a maximum wage for players
19 December 2015
Jimmy Hill, who has died aged 87, will be best remembered as presenter of Match of the Day and as an opinionated football analyst for the BBC for 25 years; he was also one of the chief architects of the modern game in Britain.
Hill had worked in every capacity in football - as a player, administrator, manager, chairman, commentator, even emergency linesman - and it was his complete absorption in the sport, and his consequent concern for its best interests, that gave rise to many developments in the game now taken for granted.
It was Hill who first introduced all-seater stadia and commercial sponsorship of clubs to football, who pushed for teams to be awarded three points for a win, and who enlivened television coverage by devising the panel of pundits. He was even involved in the gallant attempt to awaken America to the joys of the beautiful game. Most importantly of all, however, it was Hill who led the campaign to abolish the maximum wage for players, so transferring the balance of power from the clubs to those who actually generated their revenue.
In 1957, Hill, then a bossy midfielder with Fulham, was elected chairman of the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), the players’ union. At the time the maximum weekly wage for footballers was capped at £20, although the best teams could draw crowds of 60,000 every Saturday afternoon. Stars such as John Charles were being tempted to leave the British game for Italy, where there were no limits on pay, while some clubs were paying illicit bonuses to players to persuade them to stay.
The confrontation between the Football League and the PFA began when the former suspended some Sunderland players suspected of taking under-the-counter payments. Hill worked successfully to have them reinstated, and then challenged the League to end the wage cap and to allow footballers to move freely when their contracts ended. Astutely using television to win over public opinion, Hill – who always had something of the barrack room lawyer about him – took his union to within four days of an all-out strike in January 1961 before the League was forced to capitulate. The lid of Pandora’s Box had been forced open, and football would never be the same again.
James William Thomas Hill was born in Balham, south London, on July 22 1928, the son of a milkman and failed bookmaker. Jimmy’s mother had been married before and widowed during the First World War.
Her two children from this marriage were the cause of fresh sorrow to her while Jimmy was still a schoolboy. His half-sister, who had played cricket for England, was killed in a motorcycle accident and a few years later, during the Second World War, his half-brother was fatally injured in a fall while serving in Iraq. Hill later attributed his determination to make something of his life to wanting to make up for his mother’s loss of her other children.
His first success was winning a scholarship to a grammar school, Henry Thornton’s, in Clapham. There he blossomed into a good cricketer (football being discouraged) and was a stalwart of the Boys’ Brigade, whose regimented outlook was to leave its mark on a character which, while not without a good deal of individualism and eccentricity, was also strongly drawn to tradition.
At 16, Hill left school, hoping to become a journalist or a footballer. Instead he found himself a stockbroker’s clerk in the City. From this he was saved by National Service, where he fetched up in a unit containing nine professional footballers. His own game quickly improved, and he began playing as an amateur under Ted Drake at Reading. In 1949 he signed for Brentford, and three years later moved to Fulham.
Hard-running and well-organised though he was, Hill was never more than a journeyman player, and certainly not in the same class as such Fulham teammates as Johnny Haynes and Bobby Robson. Beginning as a midfielder before belatedly becoming a forward, he spent most of his career in the Second Division, only enjoying a couple of seasons in the top flight at the end of his playing days.
The highlights of these were an FA Cup run in 1958 in which Hill scored in every round, including the semi-final that Fulham lost to Manchester United, and the five goals Hill scored in an away match at Doncaster the same season, a league record that was not equalled for another 40 years. The following year, Fulham having been promoted to the First Division, Hill scored 25 goals, his best tally for a season, but in 1961, at the age of 33, he suffered a knee injury stretching for a ball at Goodison Park and was forced to quit the game, having played almost 300 matches for the club.
His campaign against the maximum wage had put him in the public eye, however, and he was offered the general manager’s job at Coventry City, then struggling at the foot of the Third Division. Hill rapidly showed once more that he had a sure grasp of the direction soccer should move in, bringing commercial sponsorship to a club for the first time and devising such marketing schemes as dances for the children of fans. It was also Hill who changed the team’s colours to sky blue, and who penned a new club anthem, to the tune of the Eton Boating Song. By 1967, he had taken the team into the First Division. He demanded as his reward a 10-year contract, was offered five, and abruptly resigned.
His career then took an unexpected turn when, quite to his surprise, he was asked to become head of sport at London Weekend Television. There Hill’s first task was to find something to broadcast, as all the principal sports were contracted to the BBC. The consequence was the introduction to television of darts and wrestling, as well as such oddities as artistic cycling and Canadian log-chopping.
More significantly for the future coverage of football, for the 1970 World Cup Hill instituted the first panel of pundits – Malcolm Allison, Paddy Crerand and Derek Dougan – whose lively mutual animosity for the first time brought ITV more viewers than the BBC for the tournament.
Although Hill was appointed LWT’s deputy controller of programmes in 1972, he was by then becoming better known as a forthright (if often verbose) analyst alongside Brian Moore on The Big Match. Hill’s experiences with the PFA had taught him the value of television exposure, and he became an accomplished self-publicist; on one occasion coming out of the stands at Highbury to deputise for an injured linesman.
In 1973, he became the joint presenter with Bob Wilson of Match of the Day, a position he held for 15 years until the arrival of Des Lynam saw him moved sideways once more into the analyst’s chair.
Hill’s most obvious trait as a broadcaster was his refreshing willingness to say what he thought, even if he gave offence. Although he had shed most of his London accent, he was never particularly articulate (“It’s as if there’s a laser beam in his chest attracting the ball” was one observation), but he was enthusiastic about the game, and his conviction that he was always right made for watchable television, especially late in his career when he began to be challenged by younger pundits such as Alan Hansen and Terry Venables.
Outside television, Hill maintained strong links with the administration of football. From 1971 until 1976 he was on the Sports Council, and from 1975 until 1983 he was managing director and then chairman of Coventry, where he brought in all-seating as a way of combating hooliganism. The idea backfired however when visiting Leeds fans found the wooden seats made handy missiles. Hill was later chairman of Fulham from 1987 until 1997, his most important contribution being to secure the club’s ownership of their Craven Cottage ground.
In 1976, Hill landed a lucrative contract to raise the standard of football in Saudi Arabia. This liaison did not last long, but Hill sunk the substantial profits from the transaction into the fledgling American league. Yet despite the presence of ageing stars such as Pele and Cruyff the sport did not catch the American public’s imagination, and Hill was reported to have lost himself and Coventry some £2 million.
In 1996, he admitted having lost a further £100,000 in a car business run by two of his sons, and after he was released by the BBC in 1998 he confessed that it was his need to keep earning money that had prompted him to accept a presenter’s job with Sky. Nonetheless, Hill lived in a certain amount of style, owning homes in France and Spain, and at Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex. He enjoyed golf and tennis, and until his sixties (when he was treated for cancer of the colon) he rode to hounds.
Jimmy Hill was a most curious mix of personalities. As a young man he had taken on the Establishment, yet as he aged he espoused increasingly conservative values. He could be pedantic, irksomely patriotic and too fond of his fame, but he knew how to make fun of himself, and of his prominent chin, which was for many years ill-concealed by a beard until he shaved it off for charity.
He was a shrewd survivor in television and, as his autobiography, The Jimmy Hill Story, revealed in 1998, an accomplished adulterer during his first two marriages. Yet for someone who had spent much of his life in the public eye, in private he seemed oddly unaware of his public image as an somewhat out-of-touch eccentric. He was appointed OBE in 1995.
His first two marriages were dissolved. He is survived by his third wife, Bryony, whom he married in 1991, and by two sons and a daughter of his first marriage and by a son and a daughter of the second.
Jimmy Hill, born July 22 1928, died December 19 2015
Wash your hands afterwards.