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THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JIMMY HILL, A PIONEER IN BRITISH FOOTBALL

Jimmy Hill was a fine footballer, but it is his efforts off the pitch that are widely-praised. The changes he implemented, from electronic boards and removing the wage cap, were revolutionary, and he is a pioneer in British football.

The career of James William Thomas Hill began as that of a fairly typical mid-century English footballer. He was born in 1928, the son of William Thomas Hill: a World War I veteran and latterly a milkman. Hill Jnr did his own national service during the Second World War as a clerk in the Royal Army Service Corps before beginning his professional playing career in 1949. 

An inside-right, he played 87 times for Brentford before moving to Fulham in 1952. It was there that he spent the majority of his playing days and featured in nearly 300 games for the club before hanging up his boots at the age of 33. While at Craven Cottage he was part of the team who were promoted to the First Division for just the second time in their history, with Hill scoring a club record five games in a game against Doncaster Rovers.

But it is not for those achievements that he is most fondly remembered or that his influence is most keenly felt. For all his traditional footballing background it was his willingness to break from the convention that set him apart from his peers and helped shape the modern game. 

In his latter days as a player, Hill was named PFA chairman, the head of the players’ union in an era far removed from present day. The working conditions for footballers in 1957 were, much like the playing conditions, uneven and restrictive. Players’ contracts were subject to a wage cap, which saw them limited to £20 a week. That is less than £400 in today’s money and barely above the national average at the time. 

This was an era when top-flight teams were enjoying enormous crowds, so much so that all eight of the highest English club-record attendances ever recorded pre-date 1960. And while the tickets were substantially cheaper than today’s, it is fair to assume that the clubs were making a healthy profit on their 20-quid labour costs. 

Noticing the enormous imbalance between clubs and players, Hill campaigned for the wage cap to be removed but the Football League refused. He continued unperturbed and threatened to bring the players’ union out on strike if he and his fellow workers’ conditions were not improved.

Hill had realised earlier than most that the players were the entertainment, and that without them the clubs had little more than muddy pitches and empty terraces. The PFA readied its members but just days before the footballers’ strike was scheduled to take place, the Football League backed down and the wage cap was abolished. This was the birth of ‘player power’.

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The impact of the change was instant. Johnny Hayes, England captain and a Fulham teammate of Hill’s, saw his salary quintupled to £100 a week. Just ten years later, George Best was the first £1,000-a-week player with the celebrity lifestyle to match. 

Wage suppression was not the only issue for contemporaries of Hill’s, and the ‘retain and transfer’ system similarly weighted contract negotiations in the clubs’ favour. If a player’s contract was to end without being renewed he would remain bound to the club until they received an offer they deemed satisfactory. Until then, he would be left to rot in the reserves on a minimal wage. 

One player to find himself in this contractual purgatory was George Eastham, a midfielder/inside forward who had rejected a new contract at Newcastle United due to the club’s failure to provide habitable housing and refusal to let him play for England’s U23s. 

Annoyed by his lack of subservience, Newcastle refused to let the young star leave and, as he had formally requested a transfer, refused to pay him entirely. Unable to leave and unwilling to re-sign, Eastham went on strike and received the full support from the PFA and Hill himself. 

The player’s union provided £15,000 to cover Eastham’s legal fees as the issue became a protracted High Court case. In 1964, four years after Eastham’s original strike, Justice Wilberforce ruled that the retain-and-transfer system was unreasonable, and introduced fairer terms for players whose contracts had ended and a proper transfer tribunal to deal with such disputes. 

In his six years with the PFA, Jimmy Hill had broken two methods of clubs’ control over their employees and unlocked the potential of player power as a force for change in the game. 

After his retirement in November 1961, Hill moved into management, taking over at Coventry City just months after his 33rd birthday. At the time this was particularly young for a manager and his time at the club was characterised by progress and modernisation.

His seven-year spell at the helm was nicknamed ‘The Sky Blue Revolution’, during which time he changed their club colours, introduced a new nickname and even penned a new club anthem, ‘The Sky Blue Song’. This was a new image for a Coventry side that was languishing in the Third Division and it showed his belief in the importance of creating a ‘club brand’ to draw people in. 

He introduced pre-match entertainment and English football’s first fully-fledged match programme, and made sure that his team understood the importance of the fans’ experience: “The players had to come to appreciate that there was more to running a football club than just kicking a ball around on a Saturday and if you wanted Coventry to be special, you had to be special.”

During his time in the midlands, he also commissioned the Football League’s first all-seater stadium, introduced the first electric scoreboard in 1964 and lifted a media ban to allow player interviews and camera crews in the grounds for the first time. It was a part-inclusionary tactic, part-profit maximisation, but the ability to identify football’s potential to engage and enthrall was 100 percent Jimmy Hill. 

He saw football as an entertainment source, first and foremost, and he viewed his job as to foster a positive relationship between the club and its fans: “What we were trying to do was encourage people to like the club and come to it. In the end, it was a great success.”

They were successful on the pitch too, with Hill overseeing one of the greatest periods in the club’s history as they won Third and Second Division titles to gain promotion to the top tier of English football.

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After instigating such an astonishing transformation he was rewarded with the offer of a five-year contract with the club readying itself for First Division football for the first time in its history. Yet in the summer of 1967, Hill refused. 

Instead, he insisted on a gargantuan ten-year deal that he felt was fair recompense for a remarkable six years at the helm. The Coventry board would not oblige, and with that he was off. 

His first and only stint in management was over without leading his team out in the top flight. An omission that may have felt painful for some, was simply a springboard to the next project for Hill. 

After leaving the Sky Blues he began a career in the media and became Head of Sport at London’s co-ITV region, London Weekend Television, in 1968. While there he co-hosted the broadcasters’ World Cup 1970 coverage and continued his blue-sky thinking. 

The World Cup in Mexico was the first to be broadcast in colour, and Hill recognised it as a chance to amp up the entertainment value for those watching at home. While the BBC’s coverage was little more than a well-spoken chap methodically recalling the day’s events, Hill introduced a panel of outspoken footballing luminaries to add insight, experience and a healthy dose of panache to proceedings. 

There is laughter. There are jovial questions sent in by viewers. There is Malcom Allison in an unbuttoned Fred Perry polo shirt, leaning back in his chair as he tells Derek Dougan to shut up with his Jairzinho over Pele arguments. Someone even uses the phrase “with the lads”. 

The 1970 coverage was presented by Brian Moore, who said the panel “gave football punditry a fresh intoxicating sparkle”, and even watching it now it feels innovative and exciting, a format and style instantly recognisable to anyone who has watched Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher banter their way through Monday Night Football analysis. 

But of course, soon after changing football coverage for good he moved onto the next challenge and was named the new host of Match of the Day in 1973. He would present over 600 Match of the Day shows but far from settling down in his cosy TV gig he continued to innovate, and literally changed the game with his left-field ideas and right-minded principles. 

Wanting the fans to enjoy more attacking football he was an early campaigner for the introduction of the three points for a win model, incentivising teams to go for the victory with greater reward for expansive play. It was first adopted in England in 1981 and slowly grew in use globally until it was employed at the 1994 World Cup. This was the tipping point and by 1996 all major football competitions and leagues were dishing out three points to the winners. It was Hill at his pro-entertainment, pro-football best. 

Throughout the 1990sSky Sports had been increasing its stake in English football and sought to borrow some of Hill’s intrinsic footballing credibility with the introduction of Jimmy Hill’s Sunday Supplement in 1999. He led a discussion of the week’s football news with a panel of journalists in a very believable looking mock-up of his kitchen, complete with a working cafeteria and abundant pastries. 

For a man characterised by his ‘football as entertainment’ doctrine, it seems fitting that his last major role was working for the broadcaster who flew the flag of the “most exciting league in the world” more proudly than any other. In his eight years at the show, he was perfectly at home in the precise conditions that he had helped cultivate, in the pure unadulterated drama of it all. Whether that be the exciting football, the big-money transfers or the fan-fuelled gossip; he just sat amongst the croissants to chat about the game. 

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It was the perfect culmination of a post-playing career that had made it all possible. Through the birth of player power, the commercialisation of the game and the introduction of the pundit panel, it reflected Hill’s unwavering commitment to the spectacle of football. And the fact that he was chosen for this new project at the age of 71 reflected his own longevity.  

Working as either presenter or analyst, he was involved in every major international tournament from 1966 to 1998. From Jack Charlton to Rio Ferdinand, from grassless mud-baths to manicured turf, Jimmy Hill was omnipresent as the game changed in ways unimaginable for most. 

With such bold ideas for the future he was not a man sentimental for the past, even when it came to supplanting his own innovations. 

“Tradition means nothing,” he said, shortly before the final game at Coventry’s Highfield Road ground that he had helped modernise and where he had made so many great memories. “It’s about what you do tomorrow as a football club, not what you did yesterday.”

BY WILL GITTINS