Hall of Heroes: Jimmy Hill

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There is no more apt time to introduce Jimmy Hill to the Fulham Focus Hall of Heroes than on the eve of tomorrow’s match between Coventry City and Fulham. The fixture is very much being looked forward to anyway, as it is the first time the teams have met each other in the Football League since 1968. However, it is taking on even more importance now that the game is being celebrated and marked as Jimmy Hill Day in honour of the huge contribution he made to both clubs.

James William Thomas Hill was born in Balham in South West London in 1928 and did his National Service as the Second World War was ending in the Royal Army Service Corps. His intellect and leadership qualities must have been clear even at that tender age as he was considered as a potential candidate for officer training. However, Hill’s passion was football and after briefly playing for Fulham’s juniors in 1943 and appearing as an amateur for Folkestone and Reading, he overcame the Royals refusal to offer him professional terms by signing for Brentford in May 1949. The Bees were in the Second Division at the time and over the next three seasons Hill played over 80 games in their colours mainly as a wing half, scoring ten goals.

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It was in March 1952 that Jimmy returned to Craven Cottage, this time as a first teamer in the top-flight. He made a goal-scoring debut at Blackpool but Fulham lost 4-2 and were destined to finish bottom of the table, Hill having played half a dozen times. He had been used to being mid-table in the second division with Brentford and was again in his first full season with Fulham, playing three-quarters of the games but still being without a goal since his debut. Two goals the following season included one against his former club but the league position of eighth didn’t alter although the manager did. The man who signed him, Bill Dodgin Senior, was sacked and replaced by Frank Osborne who had the talents of top inside forwards Bobby Robson and Johnny Haynes, which meant Hill was being employed in a deeper wing-half role.

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When Robson was sold to West Brom in 1956 it enabled Hill to be played in a more advanced role at inside right, which seemed to suit his talents better. Hill’s abilities would, like anyone, pale in comparison with the precociously gifted Haynes, but his athleticism and energy were a vital component of a Fulham side that was becoming increasingly successful. In 1957/58 a run to the FA Cup semi final probably didn’t help us in the League, where we fell just 4 points short of promotion in 5th place. Hill had his best season yet contributing 16 league goals and 6 in the Cup including our second in the first drawn semi final with Manchester United. However, our disappointment didn’t linger and although Jimmy was less prolific the next season with just 6 league goals he was still a mainstay of a side that cruised to promotion in second place behind Sheffield Wednesday, a healthy 7 points clear of the other Sheffield side who missed out in 3rd – only 2 points for a win and two up in those days. Jimmy scored a memorable hat trick in a 6-2 win over Wednesday at Easter that went a long way towards securing promotion.

Hill played 25 games and scored 5 goals in our first season back at the top as Fulham finished in a creditable 10th but he picked up a knee injury the following season which led to his retirement from playing in June 1961. His Fulham career saw him make 300 appearances in all competitions and contribute 52 goals; a very worthy record in both departments. However, even whilst playing, Jimmy had taken great interest in all facets of the game and became Chairman of the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) in 1957 and along with another former Fulham player Cliff Lloyd fought for the abolition of the maximum wage . The fight was won in 1961 and the most immediate beneficiary was none other than Jimmy’s old team mate Haynes who became the first £100 a week player; no doubt to the chagrin of Fulham Chairman Tommy Trinder.

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Hill was not lost to the active game for very long and in November 1961 was sounded out for the manager’s position at Coventry who were struggling in the Third Division at the time and had just been knocked out of the FA Cup by non league King’s Lynn. Jimmy made an immediate impact and although City only finished 14th that year, the next campaign saw a rise to 4th and an astonishing run to the FA Cup Quarter Final. The 1963/64 season was even better as Coventry won the title to take their place in the Second tier where 10th and 3rd place finishes were followed by another title winning campaign in 1966/67 and promotion to the First Division for the first time in the club’s history. Not content with making an impact on the pitch, Jimmy was also an innovator off it. He changed Coventry’s colours to their now famous Sky Blue, introduced pre match entertainment, modernised the club programme and was instrumental in the improvement of the stadium.

The football world must have been fascinated to see what impact his management skills would make in the top flight but Hill surprised everyone by walking away and taking a lucrative offer from London Weekend Television to revamp the way the game was being covered on television. It was in his role as a TV pundit that Jimmy was to become so familiar over the next 30-40 years. Jimmy was never afraid to give an opinion and got a reputation as something of a controversial character. This didn’t prevent him becoming presenter of the iconic Match of the Day on the BBC, where he would go on to do the show some 600 times.

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He was still having a direct impact on the game he loved and was instrumental in two rule changes that he argued would help motivate more attacking and entertaining football. Goal average was replaced by goal difference in 1976 and in 1981 two points for a win was increased to 3 in the hope it would put teams off playing for a draw. Another short lived innovation he was involved with in 1997 ironically cost Fulham, as for that season goals scored overrode goal difference and we lost out on the Division Three title to Wigan. In any other season we’d have won it.

Hill was as energetic off the pitch as he had been on it and was not content just to restrict his involvement to TV. In 1975 he became Managing Director back at Coventry and was involved in controversy at the end of that season. The season had over run and the last matches were on a midweek evening that had a direct bearing on relegation. One side out of Coventry, Sunderland and Bristol City would go down with Sunderland travelling to Everton and the Sky Blues hosting Bristol. Crowd congestion at Coventry meant the game kicked off late. News filtered through late in the match that Sunderland had lost at Goodison which meant a draw would keep both Coventry and Bristol up. With the scores level at 2-2 the Sunderland result was announced on the stadium PA and the two sides played out the remaining time without any attempt to score. Had either side won Sunderland would have stayed up instead and what happened caused the League to hold an inquiry – although the result was allowed to stand. Sunderland fans have never forgiven Hill for what they thought was his hand in the affair.

After Hill’s spell back on the board at Coventry he was to again become involved at Fulham in a far more significant way than he was as a player. The club had been struggling in the mid 80’s and in 1986 following relegation to the Third Division, then Chairman Ernie Clay sold the club and the ground to property developers Marler Estates. In early 1987 their snake of a chairman David Bulstrode announced his intention to merge us with QPR and develop the Cottage into luxury flats. Our fans were outraged and a memorable, on pitch, half time demonstration in our match with Walsall was the catalyst for the movement to save our club. The campaign needed a figurehead though and our White Knight was none other than Jimmy Hill. His reputation garnered the publicity we needed and although others were more directly, and financially involved, it was Hill’s name that was an essential ingredient in our survival.

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Hill took over as Chairman but with limited money the team continued to struggle on the pitch. He therefore upset fans when he took a cash offer from the Developers to remove our support from the Council’s Compulsory Purchase Order that would have secured our tenure at the Cottage. To be fair to Hill he probably thought he was between a rock and a hard place and that as we might lose the ground anyway he would soften the blow by taking some money. Fortunately with the Cottage and the Stevenage Road Stand having listed status it delayed any possible development and then the property company went bust as the market crashed. With Hill still at the helm we had dropped into the bottom tier of The Football League, but in his last year as Chairman Micky Adams’ rag tag army got us promoted on a shoestring. It was a fitting way for Jimmy’s reign to end. That summer Mohammed Al Fayed purchased the club and the ground and set us on the path to the, at times, magical moments we have enjoyed since. It’s fair to say that without the involvement of Jimmy Hill we may very well have not had a club at all; certainly not at the place we all love – Craven Cottage.

Hill achieved so much in the game but it is at Coventry and of course Fulham that he will always be remembered with the most affection. It is very fitting that he will be honoured at the game tomorrow, where it would be nice to think that Jimmy is looking down on the occasion with pride. It is undoubtedly even more fitting that he is inducted into our Hall of Heroes.