Jimmy Hill’s proudest boast was that he had done absolutely everything in football, and he had.
In addition to being a modestly successful player, with more than 300 appearances for Fulham, he was also a union leader at the time when the maximum wage was fought against and finally scrapped in 1961 to allow his team-mate Johnny Haynes to become the country’s first £100-a-week player.
That achievement in itself would guarantee Hill a place in football history, even if the enormous modernisation he helped bring about now seems quaintly ineffective next to the gamechanging consequences of the Bosman ruling three decades later. But for the first the second would never have happened in the same way, however, and Hill, like Jean-Marc Bosman, is owed a debt not only by the thousands of footballers whose earning power he substantially improved but also by followers of a game that needed to be dragged into the 20th century.
Not content with that amount of renown, Hill went on to be a coach, manager, director and chairman at Coventry City, where he was also credited with coining the nickname Sky Blues after changing the kit, writing a new club song and introducing the first modern match programme.
He won two promotions but never managed Coventry at the highest level, leaving instead to become head of sport at London Weekend Television. In that capacity he found himself in charge of coverage of the 1970 World Cup and when challenged by the necessity of making studio sequences more interesting he came up with the then revolutionary idea of a panel of pundits. Clearly a TV natural, Hill subsequently switched channels to the BBC and made more than 600 appearances as presenter of Match of the Day. That turned him into something of a national treasure and, though frequently caricatured, he clearly enjoyed the recognition, even beginning to describe himself as a journalist. In 1999, 10 years after covering the Hillsborough disaster as part of his MotD duties, Hill turned up on Sky Sports chairing a Sunday morning discussion with three football journalists that, with minor modifications, is still running.
In the mid-seventies he returned to Coventry as chairman, this time overseeing a period in the top flight, and a statue of him now stands outside the Ricoh Stadium. He was always outspoken and direct, perhaps a little bit too much so when unwisely attempting to defend Ron Atkinson’s racist remarks in 2004. His attempted defence, that it was merely the language of the football field, did not go down well with anti‑racism groups and for the first time since he rose to public prominence it began to appear Hill might be out of touch and out of date.
He undoubtedly deserves to be remembered for his very real achievements rather than a late and untypical lapse of judgment and fans of a certain age will always retain the fond memory of him emerging from the crowd at Highbury in September 1972 to run the line when one of the officials was injured. In what even now sounds like something from schoolboy fiction of the time, an announcement was made that the game between Arsenal and Liverpool could not continue unless a qualified referee could be found to help out and in next to no time Hill was donning a tracksuit. He was at the game as a spectator, but needless to say he was a qualified referee.
Some of his other claimed legacies, such as all-seat stadiums, electronic scoreboards and the introduction of three points for a win, all seem a little unlikely to have come from one individual, and perhaps some of them are, though there was never an individual in football quite like Hill.
The BBC’s top man has just said his influence lives on in the way we enjoy football today and that is certainly true and not just on television. Hill was an innovator and an enthusiast, both an important historical figure and a familiar presence in living rooms. He changed the game and managed to do far more besides. Most of all, through times when football was not always as popular or viewer-friendly as it is at the moment, he thoroughly enjoyed the game.
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