The failing health of Jimmy Hill is a travesty given how vibrant the man used to be. Now firmly in a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, Hill is falling hard, his once bright mind shattered and his memories of the game fading fast. The prognosis for Jimmy is not good after he failed to respond to treatment and now is in the latter stages of the disease. There are glimmers of hope for Hill’s friends and family including his devoted wife Bryony for over 40 years who visits Jimmy daily at the nursing home where he is being cared for. He may not remember faces but from time to time flashes his trademark smile as he holds his wife’s hand. He may not be able to recall the various achievements that he has had in his life but some of those moments have now been captured in a book written by Bryony called My Gentleman Jimmy.
Known best as the face of Match of the Day for over a decade and a half before releasing the throne to Des Lynam but in truth he was much more than this. Over his long career in the game, Hill held almost every position imaginable from manager to coach to director to chairman. He was also a union leader, a television executive, presenter, analyst and occasional match official. He was a man of many coats, all of which he wore proudly with a sense of purpose for everything that he did. And he did a lot. Like him or loathe him, Hill’s contribution to the British game cannot be dismissed lightly.
As a player, Hill was a two man club with spells at Brentford and Fulham as a centre forward, racking up 459 appearances and scoring 51 goals along the way. It was during his spell at Fulham that he became chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) and lobbied to have the maximum wage of £20 a week scrapped. In 1961 it was approved in a defining moment for the British game. Today’s footballers owe a huge debt of gratitude to Hill for this as it lead to the wages that they receive today for their services. At the time Hill believed that scrapping the rule would open up the league to be more competitive and attract better players which it did but he never envisaged a day when players would be making hundreds of thousands of pounds per week to play the beautiful game. In a recent interview his wife Bryony remarked that Hill used to read the papers each morning and gasp at the astronomic wages quoted that the stars of today were earning, wondering if it was true or if in fact the newspaper had simply made a typing error.
After retiring, Hill turned his attention to management with Coventry and over a six year period from 1961 to 1967 he transformed the side in what is now known as “The Sky Blue Revolution”. He introduced the clubs now famous sky blue kit, pioneered all seating stadiums, brought match programmes into English football and heralded the start of pre match entertainment at games which has now become a mainstay. On the pitch, the team had successes too with a Division Three Championship in the 63-64 season and a Division Two title two years later. His decision to leave in 1967 just before the side made their top flight debut may have shocked many but for Hill it was the right thing to do as he had loftier ambitions to conquer. Hill quickly moved into broadcasting and set about revolutionizing that industry too introducing the idea of football pundit panels to talk about the major action in the game, first introduced for the 1970 World Cup. He would hold various roles in his broadcasting career but it was his spell as Match of the Day host which gained him much of the praise. Hill was a trailblazer, changing the format of the show to become the show we have today. His coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster earned him many plaudits with various people commenting on his compassionate tone and professionalism throughout that event. After leaving the BBC, he went to Sky where he had his own weekly discussion show called Jimmy Hill’s Sunday Supplement which remains part of Sky’s main broadcast schedule today.
His diagnosis in 2007 was life shattering and a devastating blow for Bryony, his children and all those who care for Jimmy. Scottish journalist Archie MacPherson knew Jimmy well and spoke fondly about a modest man who contributed more to the modern game that most others have. He reminded us that it was Hill who lobbied to change a win from two points to three to encourage more attacking football, a move that has worked wonders for the game. He also noted that whilst Hill may have been the subject of a somewhat controversial song by the Scottish fans commenting on his sexual preferences, he was admired by them as he was by everyone who met him or listened to him. Hill continues his fight to this day, his memory depleting by the hour but with the dignity and grace that made him a fundamental part of the history of British football. Hill will be remembered fondly as a pioneer in the game, his legacy firmly secure as a man known for much more than his recognizable chin.