Part Two: “Fulham’s Famous Bearded Inside-Right”

By Steve Williams

First published April 2007

As we’ve seen, in the 1960s, most people involved in football seemed to think television was one of the most dangerous phenomena in the world, up there with communism and the Rolling Stones. The chairman and directors of most Football League clubs were adamant television cameras would not come anywhere near their grounds if they had anything to do with it, and treated those that turned up with barely disguised contempt.

One major footballing figure, however, was more interested in the potential of soccer on television. Jimmy Hill had first entered the public eye in the ’50s as a player for Reading, Barnet – where he augmented his wage with a job as a chimney sweep – and most famously, Fulham. While he was at Craven Cottage he became chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association in 1957, and it was at this point he first got involved with the media. He was called on to give interviews on behalf of the players the union represented, and made his first major appearance on television in February 1958, when ITV invited him to comment on the Munich air disaster involving Manchester United.

There was time for more frivolous work, too, such as an advert for Remington where “Fulham’s famous bearded inside-right” was seen shaving off the facial hair that had already become his trademark.

His most famous achievement as chairman of the PFA was finally getting the “maximum wage” ruling scrapped in 1961, giving players the opportunity to make more of a living from the game. This only came about after the PFA had threatened strike action, which inevitably led to more television appearances by Hill. However, he couldn’t take advantage of the new-found riches as he had to retire as a player at the age of 33 due to a knee injury.

Hill kept himself busy, though. In 1961 he wrote a book, Striking for Soccer, which served very much as a manifesto for how the game could be improved. His suggestions included smaller divisions, a Super League featuring the best players and a bigger emphasis on providing entertainment for the fans in terms of competitions and better corporate facilities. He also felt television had a major role to play in the game, suggesting one match from each weekend’s programme to be moved forward and played in front of the cameras on Friday nights.

He was able to put some of these ideas into practice when he became manager of Coventry City in the same year. Hill changed their kit colours to the familiar sky blue and even wrote a song for fans to sing on the terraces, as well as setting up a sponsorship deal with Rover. These gimmicks didn’t detract from the game itself, though, as, in 1967, he took the club from the third division to the first – dizzying heights, new to City.

However Hill never got to lead out a team for a top-flight match. At Coventry he’d again proven himself an outspoken and confident media personality. He welcomed the Match of the Day cameras to Highfield Road and was even prepared to be interviewed at half-time (“I’m only hoping that in the second half we shall be able to spread the game out a little more”). The BBC also signed him up as a pundit on their coverage of the 1966 World Cup, while he was billed as “football advisor” for the Corporation’s risible soccer soap United!. Hence in 1967, when he quit Coventry City, angered that the board wouldn’t give him a 10-year contract, he embarked on a new career in television.

Hill’s big ambitions found a match in London Weekend Television, the new ITV franchise about to begin transmissions in the summer of 1968. He wasn’t hired as simply a pundit or presenter, however, but as the company’s full-time Head of Sport, charged with bringing a new look to ITV’s sporting output.

Of course, the channel had covered plenty of sport in the decade before that. Its first football broadcast came in 1956, presenting live action from an FA Cup replay between Bedford and Arsenal – the second half only – on a Thursday afternoon. Other ad hoc coverage later followed, including the FA Cup Final in 1956, and then every year from 1958, and they were of course the only channel that had ever been able to screen a live league match, with their ill-fated Saturday night transmission of Blackpool vs Bolton in September 1960.

Later, in 1962, Anglia Television became an unlikely pace-setter. They offered the Football League £1000 to screen highlights of 30 matches involving teams in their region – Norwich, Ipswich, Peterborough and Colchester – 24 hours after they were played. This was agreed, and so the company became the first broadcasters to show a regular weekly programme devoted to nothing but football highlights.

The rest of the ITV network also looked towards producing coverage of teams in their area, with ATV – when they held the franchise for London at the weekend – launching Star Soccer, on an occasional basis, with Peter Lorenzo commentating on matches involving the capital’s teams.

However much of the channel’s sports programming was hugely parochial and slightly amateurish. It wasn’t helped by the fact the BBC had most of the decent sports rights sewn up, and that those running ITV often had little interest in the pasttime. One famous – though perhaps apocryphal – story had it that Lew Grade vetoed exclusive and valuable contracts with the Amateur Athletics Association and Amateur Boxing Association (both of which would have guaranteed top-class sporting action on ITV screens) because he wasn’t going to have amateurs on any channel he was running.

With LWT, however, it was all going to be different, and sport was to be taken seriously. Indeed, the channel hired a strident young journalist named Michael Parkinson to present and run an investigative series, Sports Arena, which would be screened on Friday evenings. The first instalment went out at 10.30pm on the channel’s opening night, and featured a hard-hitting documentary on the rise of black power in American sport, fronted by Brian Moore, who later admitted he was completely out of his depth on this assignment and could barely understand the arguments.

Much more his scene was the new channel’s flagship football series. Until now, soccer on television had been presented in as bog-standard a fashion as you could get. The host or commentator – usually the same person – would turn up at the ground and do a quick introduction to the match, before showing as much of it as time and contracts would allow. After it, there might be a quick interview with a player or manager, and if you were very lucky there would be a former player or referee to offer a brief, uncontroversial opinion.

Jimmy Hill, however, wanted to shake all this up. LWT’s new football show, The Big Match, was intended to mix football action with a much more detailed and entertaining look at the game. With the BBC having exclusive rights to show matches on Saturday nights, LWT had to screen their highlights on Sunday afternoons, but this meant they could spend more time putting the show together, and also saw them play to a much younger audience, with plenty of kids able to tune in.

Brian Moore was personally headhunted from BBC Radio to present and commentate – against the wishes of his deputy John Bromley, who preferred Granada’s Barry Davies – and Hill himself appeared in front of the cameras as a full-time analyst. This was a role that hadn’t really been seen on television before, as Hill made full use of the primitive technology that existed – including the first slow-motion replay machines – to make his points. As Brian Moore later pointed out, “He would take a couple of minutes to examine a passage of play and explain why a move was important. People were saying, ‘I didn’t realise that’. In five minutes on a Sunday afternoon the old boy changed the whole emphasis of football on television”.

On Match of the Day, if the BBC had the misfortune to choose a drab goalless draw, that was tough luck. Hill, however, came up with enough ideas to ensure there would be something interesting on The Big Match even if the football was a damp squib. Silly or unusual soccer moments from around the world would be dug out, viewers’ letters were invited and big name guests appeared in the studio, not just from the world of football but also celebrity fans such as Freddie Starr and Elton John. Hill also penned the song Good Old Arsenal for fans to sing at the 1971 Cup Final after his original idea, to get viewers to write new lyrics for Land of Hope and Glory, was vetoed by the estate of Edward Elgar.

For reasons lost somewhere in the midst of time, he also once contrived to attend a Chelsea match at Stamford Bridge with none other than Raquel Welsh in tow, who Hill gave a running commentary throughout (“He’s trying to stop the goalkeeper coming out one way and in the end, you see, he’s trying to make him kick it with his weak foot”).

Hill made sure he always attended the match the programme was covering, considering it too risky to offer an opinion on a game he hadn’t watched from beginning to end, and at Highbury in 1971 found himself even closer to the action when a linesman injured himself before the match and he was the only qualified replacement. As Brian Moore said in commentary, “The man who’s put referees and linesmen under the spotlight for so long, now is truly under the spotlight himself, under something like a 50,000 crowd and television as well.”

There was a pioneering and somewhat ramshackle air to the early days of LWT’s sporting coverage. In 1969, ITV grabbed exclusive rights to cover an England match in Mexico, which saw Hill and Moore fly off to Central America to provide coverage. On the night of the match, Hill positioned himself on the side of the pitch to introduce the coverage, only to be completely drowned out by a marching band who decided at that exact moment to perform inches away from him, before he handed over to Moore, who was stuck in an airless booth behind a screen that was doing a better job of reflecting the sun than letting him see the pitch.

After flying home, they were then told that ITV had managed to scoop the rights to England’s encounter with Brazil, and immediately jumped onto another plane only to find out that the contract was worthless, so spent a week on the beach instead.

If The Big Match didn’t have the gravitas and authority of the BBC equivalent, it was certainly a lot more fun. Indeed, for a time it looked as if it was the only programme on LWT that was actually successful. The original management’s lofty programming ideas – including Parky’s high-faluting Sports Arena – had been massively unpopular with the ITV audience, leading to serious financial problems and huge boardroom upheaval, and for a time, Hill found himself promoted to the role of Deputy Director of Programmes at the company. LWT found its feet, however, and he was able to return to concentrating on his sporting brief.

Undoubtedly Hill’s finest hour came in 1970. That year’s World Cup was likely to be a major draw on television – with matches taking place in Mexico, it was highly unlikely many fans would be able to attend in person. Both the BBC and ITV provided blanket coverage, with the BBC covering events in their usual authoritative style, with Frank Bough joined by a huge number of expert analysts, including Brian Clough, Ian St John and Bob Wilson, all of whom would play a major role in televised football in future years.

ITV, however, decided against constantly rotating their experts, and Hill found a panel that would appear together on every night of the tournament, made up of big personalities that would spark off each other and provide lively debate. As Brian Moore said, “Football criticism on television had been fairly mealy-mouthed up until 1970, you know, it was important you said the right thing. And then we came to the 1970 World Cup, and Jimmy was a party to it, who decided we would have a panel with a difference. We wanted one or two extroverts”.

Hill plumped for Malcolm Allison, Derek Dougan, Pat Crerand and Bob McNab, all of whom were holed up in a hotel for a month, where Allison managed to run up the biggest bar tab in the venue’s history. This hotel was, of course, not in Mexico, but London – the facilities didn’t exist to present the whole tournament from Mexico, and it was felt important to get a feel for how the viewers at home were watching the event.

Outspoken Manchester City coach Allison was undoubtedly the biggest presence on the panel, smoking cigars on air and coming up with the odd dodgy comment – “Why are we technically better in Europe? Because we play against peasants, teams who play in primitive ways!” – which earned him a rebuke from Hill (“Now, Malcolm, any more and we’re going to have to show you the red card”), but all four played their part. Bob McNab, the youngest of the panel, was initially overwhelmed by the others and had trouble getting a word in, so he was provided with a bell to ring when he wanted to make a comment.

The quartet became hugely successful, which was first noticed a week in when they left the hotel for a spot of shopping, only to find themselves mobbed by a huge gang of women. A clothing firm, meanwhile, sent in Union Jack ties for the panel to wear for England matches, which they later threw to the floor in disgust after their defeat to West Germany, while Alan Mullery, blamed by Allison for England’s exit, came into the studio to argue his case, flinging one of his England caps in Allison’s face.

Some of it may have been contrived, but it all worked on screen, and the 1970 World Cup remains the only time ITV have beaten the BBC in head-to-head competition.

This tournament is still the high water mark for the channel’s football coverage, although the panel’s return for the following year’s Watney Cup was somewhat less exciting. Much of it was thanks to the pioneering efforts of Jimmy Hill, although his spell at LWT was a fairly brief one. In 1973, after five years on screen, he moved over to the BBC, having outgrown his London-only fiefdom, and now after a regular national audience.

John Bromley later said, “One of Jimmy’s problems, I think, when he was with us, was that he appeared on The Big Match, which only went basically to the southern part of England. So when he travelled to the Midlands, or when he travelled to the North, they said, ‘What are you doing these days, Jim?’, and he said, ‘I’m on the telly.’ They said, ‘Well, we never see you’. And that irked him a bit.

“Sam Leitch, who was then the boss of the BBC [sports department], said, ‘Jim, come across, I can give you an audience, nationwide,’ and the old boy said, ‘This is for me’! So the cab driver in Newcastle could say, ‘I saw you on the telly last night’, and Jim loves all that.”

Hill took over Match of the Day and made numerous changes to that series too – not only presenting the programme but continuing his analysis role. This was a job he held for 15 years, before the rise of Des Lynam saw him return to punditry alone. Throughout his spell at the BBC, his outspoken views saw him annoy the fans of virtually every club in the league, and in 1982 Hill managed to piss off the entire nation of Scotland by suggesting David Narey’s World Cup goal against Brazil was merely “a toepoke”. However, Hill stood by all his comments, saying that, “Provoking argument is important. I agree with Alan [Hansen] nine times out of 10, but because I’m a journalist I pick the 10th point and we have a ding-dong. I have a passion for [football] and I get upset if there is something I don’t like”.

40 years on from his first steps in television, Jimmy Hill remains a part of football with his own weekly series on Sky Sports. Coverage has changed massively in those four decades, but with his ability to innovate – and eye for a gimmick – Hill proved himself as much of a revolutionary in the TV studio as he had on the pitch and in the dugout.

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