"Jimmy Hill"

Tuesday 1st October 2013

The news this week that Jimmy Hill is battling Alzheimer's Disease in a care home came as both a shock and a surprise, such has been his omnipresence in the lives of anyone with even a passing interest in football.

His influence on the game is arguably as great as that of any one person. From his work with the PFA, scrapping the serfdom of the maximum wage, his revolutionary methods in turning Coventry City from a lower-league backwater into a top flight mainstay, to shaping the way football has been broadcast on television.

Having lost my own father to the illness in May, after a five-year downhill journey, I can only offer Jimmy's family my most sincere best wishes, having seen first-hand what a devastating, de-humanising condition it is, cruelly robbing you of the person you love, while leaving their otherwise functioning body behind, as if to mock your grief.

Over the past five years I came to recognise Alzheimer's as an unwelcome additional house guest. The one which effectively runs away with your father's family photograph albums and wantonly burns them. It is to the Hills intense credit, that in these prying multimedia times, that they have, until now, kept Jimmy's decline out of public sight.

His football legacy is all around. Incredible that little more than half a century ago, Johnny Haynes became the first "hundred pound footballer", after Hill's work as PFA Chairman finally broke down the draconian maximum wage rules, which had stood for the previous sixty years. One wonders how aware the modern player is of this, with today's occasional six-figure weekly Premier League salaries, and of what debt he owes to the work of Jimmy Hill. And one wonders too what could be achieved if that modern top-end pro was to contribute, via the player's union, a week's or even just a day's salary to a body such as The Alzheimer's Society, as a mark of respect and recognition for both Jimmy's condition, and what he achieved for them all those decades distant.

Nowhere in football this week will the news of Jimmy's illness have been felt more acutely than at Coventry City. In six brief, glorious years at Highfield Road, Hill's methods, on and off the field, saw Coventry rise from being provincial lower league small-fry, to a First Division club, for the first time in their history. Watching archive footage of those days, the most remarkable thing was just how "hands-on" the manager was. Hill had influence in the club from top-to-bottom, from signing the centre-forward, to writing the lyrics to the club song. A different, more gentle time, perhaps, and certainly unthinkable in the modern game.

All this was, by the way, long before I was born, and the Jimmy Hill I remember is the giant figure who pretty much WAS televised football in the pre-Sky era.

These days a panel of "pundits" is the assumed norm when broadcasting football, but it was Hill who presided over the first of them, during the 1970 World Cup on ITV. And when he wasn't the presenter himself, Hill would take the expert's role - which arguably is where his fame transcended mere football.

I'm often asked if commentating is hard. I always reply that punditry and co-commentary is far more difficult. It's the role some, wrongly, assume any ex-player can do, yet very few can. That ability to put into succinct words not WHAT has just happened, but WHY it has. I always say that I draw the framework, and the co-commentator colours it in. Jimmy Hill had a natural gift for this. Yes, he could be contentious. Yes, he could upset people (his verbal sparring with Terry Venables when discussing England games in the early 90s was terrific viewing), but this was never done to have the modern "trolling" effect to get an audience reading, viewing and listening purely out of outrage. People genuinely cared what Jimmy Hill had to say. And they cared enough to passionately disagree, or indeed agree with him. You can't say that about too many pundits today.

Jimmy and his family face an uncertain, trying future. Alzheimer's Disease is no respecter of a human being's achievements. And Hill has had many of those. The game we enjoy today has been shaped, perhaps far more than we realise, by Jimmy Hill.

"You Know What I Did This Summer"

Wednesday 21st August 2013

There's probably no better time for a football commentator to relaunch his website than at the start of a new football season, so here we are with the very first blog on the not-quite-all-new, but hopefully improved!

I thought the first blog should be about what I've been doing over the summer, it's been the busiest one, work-wise, I can remember. Anyone who thinks football just runs August-May these days is sorely mistaken. Not that we freelancers are complaining.

The highlight of my summer, and up there with the 2010 World Cup as a genuine career highlight, was a glorious four weeks spent in Brazil, commentating on the FIFA Confederations Cup. To go to Brazil in itself was a wonderful experience, but to get to commentate on the host nation twice, and Neymar's scintillating goals and play in the matches with Japan and Mexico, is something I shall never, ever forget. To see the world champions Spain and Italy play twice, not to mention one of my own personal favourite teams Uruguay makes you realise how lucky you are to be in this business.

The players who were hyped up before the tournament - Neymar, Paulinho, Cavani - all delivered. People often sneer at the Confederations Cup as "meaningless" and as being a mere dress-rehearsal for the main event a year later, but having been there and seen the teams and games first hand, not to mention the crowds, I can assure you, it certainly DOES matter!

I visited four host cities, namely Brasilia, Belo Horizonte ("Belo Or-zontch" as the locals call it), Fortaleza and Salvador. What I noticed about Brazil, more than any other country I've visited, is that each and every city feels completely different. Brasilia, the modern captial is all sharp lines and gleaming concrete. Belo is earthy, industrial and with a real charm. Fortaleza is party town, up on the coast in Ceara, but unbelievably humid (as the six empty water bottles lined up in front of me after the Spain-Italy semi-final testified). Salvador is edgy, unique and raucous. If you're going out there to the World Cup next year, trust me, you'll love the country and its people. They really do live and breathe football - the cliche is true.

No sooner had I arrived home than the pre-season club matches started, and then in the first week of August it was the return of the Football League, barely a month after the Confederations Cup had finished.

As for what lies ahead for me this season, I genuinely don't know. Such is the nature of the business. One certainly hopes to be doing pretty much the same thing for the same people as before, and I've certainly not heard anything to the contrary, but as a freelancer you never assume anything. Rights moves, staff commentator contract changes and new channels springing up has led to quite a different-looking landscape this season. All I can do is keep on doing what I do, and that's deliver deeply-researched, entertaining, and hopefully informative commentaries to the very best of my ability.

Any questions you'd like answering (within reason!) then drop me a line through the website, or indeed via Twitter.

Enjoy your football!