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Obituary: - Jimmy Hill 1928 - 2015 - Coventry City historian Jim Brown documents Hill's Sky Blue success

21 December 2015

The City club historian pays tribute to the great man who lead Coventry City down the path of success...

Jimmy Hill was a man of many talents and Coventry City and the City of Coventry benefited enormously from his time as manager and later chairman of the football club. In the 1960s I was one of the hordes of Coventry and Warwickshire boys who followed our very own Pied Piper down a golden path to success.

The five and a half years of his time as manager, from December 1961 to May 1967, remains the most exciting and momentous era in the history of the club. Nothing before or since, with the brief exception of the few weeks around Wembley 1987, can compare to those marvellous days which came to be known as the 'Sky Blue Era'. In a unique partnership with the go-ahead chairman Derrick Robins, he transformed Coventry City from an ailing Third Division side in a run-down stadium into the most progressive club in England that would grace the top flight for 34 years. 

Born in Balham, South London on 22 July 1928 Jimmy was first spotted by Reading manager Ted Drake whilst playing for his regiment whilst doing National Service in 1948. He never made the Reading first team and in 1949 after being released he joined Brentford where he soon got a first team chance as a centre-forward. Converted to a wing-half he spent three years at Griffin Park making 87 appearances before making the short journey to Fulham. 

He spent nine happy years at Craven Cottage, mainly at inside-forward, before a knee injury ended his career and was a wholehearted and enthusiastic member of the team that almost reached Wembley in 1958 and won promotion to Division One in 1959. During his time there he became the chairman of the Professional Footballers Association and was instrumental in the abolition of the maximum wage for players in 1961, upsetting many stick-in-the mud club chairmen along the way. The first major beneficiary of his union success was his Fulham team-mate and England captain Johnny Haynes, who became England's first £100-a-week player.

It was a chance meeting with Derrick Robins at the 1961 Lord's Taveners' Ball in London which opened up the Coventry managerial opportunity for Jimmy. The two hit it off and Jimmy was offered the City manager's job but only if he had complete control – the first City manager to have such power. A 2-1 home FA Cup defeat by non-league Kings Lynn was the catalyst for change, although he had been offered the post a week earlier.

His first match in charge was a 1-0 home win over Northampton and although the team won four of his first five games in charge, by the end of the season City were in the bottom half of the Third Division with gates under 6,000. Coventry's younger fans would however remember his first Christmas in charge - he introduced a massively popular pop and crisps fuelled autograph session with the players. Jimmy knew how to nurture the next generation of fans and that simple act is still remembered by a generation of Sky Blue supporters.

Hill started making changes from the moment he walked into the club. He revolutionised the players' training, he removed the ban on players talking to the media and he sacked the complete back-room staff including loyal servants such as Alf Wood and Ted Roberts.  Foreign clubs were invited to Highfield Road for floodlight friendlies, a fund-raising pool was launched and ground improvements planned.

The club was never out of the limelight and his innovations were admired nationwide. He introduced the Sky Blue train, Radio Sky Blue, pre-match entertainment, the Ryton training ground and the Sky Blue song as well as developing the ground into a modern, well-equipped stadium. Not everyone welcomed his innovations however and his critics said he was a gimmick merchant and riding on a horse in full hunting regalia around Highfield Road before a testimonial match played into the critic's hands.

Two of his many great attributes however were his ability to deal in the transfer market and the strength of his convictions and he was never afraid to make what were, at the time, unpopular decisions and see them through. The sale of 29-goal top scorer Terry Bly in 1963 was a case in point. The fans were in uproar when he was sold but within weeks it proved to be an inspired decision as Bly’s career tailed off and his replacement, George Hudson, became the most idolized player in the club’s history. Three years later there was further hullabaloo when Hudson was sold – hundreds of fans shunned City's big Cup match at Everton in protest and travelled to Northampton to see 'The Hud' make his debut. A year later when promotion was secured to Division One, Hill’s judgement was vindicated.  

In the close season of 1962 Jimmy was given £30,000 to strengthen the team. He largely kept faith with the defence he had inherited, built around the man-mountain captain George Curtis, and used the money to buy a brand new forward line including a club record £12,000 on centre-forward Bly.  He introduced a continental-style all-Sky Blue kit which soon got the local press calling the team the 'Sky Blues' and Jimmy, along with director John Camkin wrote the words to a club song to the tune of the Eton Boating Song. On the pitch the club reached the quarter finals of the FA Cup after an unforgettable victory over Sunderland at Highfield Road when an estimated 50,000 fans watched as City pulled of a giant-killing act with two late goals. The Cup run put the club back into the national limelight and although they missed out on promotion from Division Three they had almost doubled the average league crowd to 17,000 with massive away followings that were the envy of the top clubs in the land.

More changes came in 1963 with the sloping pitch levelled and work commencing on the 'Sky Blue Stand' to replace the rickety 1910 stand. A dazzling start to the 1963-64 season saw the team race away at the top – they were nine points clear on January 3rd – only to suffer a slump in the New Year. It was a great test of Jimmy's ability to motivate his players and he faced criticism from some fans. The nine-point lead was whittled away and their two closest rivals overtook them. Hill made two key strategic short-term signings and the collapse was arrested. A win on the final day over Colchester in front of almost 37,000 clinched the Third Division title.

The 1964-65 season started with five straight victories and the fans dreamed of successive promotions but it turned out to be a season of consolidation in Division Two. Jimmy didn't rest on his laurels however and splashed out a world record £35,000 fee for goalkeeper Bill Glazier and a similar sum for Chelsea full-back Allan Harris. The team however was still dominated by players who had cost little or nothing including Curtis, Ronnie Rees, Ernie Machin, Dietmar Bruck, Mick Kearns and Brian Hill. 

The team made a serious challenge for promotion in 1965-66 but missed out by one point. The fans believed Hill's decision to sell their idol George Hudson in March had cost the club promotion and although Hudson's career went on a downward trajectory, many never forgave him for the act. 'JH' was confident that local boy Bobby Gould would score the goals but the fans needed a new hero & the club transfer record was smashed to bring Scottish midfielder Ian Gibson to Coventry.

Neither 'Gibbo' nor the team set the world on fire in the early months of 1966-67 and it seemed that Hill had made a major error in the transfer market. After a League Cup exit to lowly Brighton and with 'Gibbo' looking set to leave, JH was under pressure.  Jimmy and his star player buried the hatchet and suddenly the team's form clicked. A run of 25 unbeaten games saw the Sky Blues win the Second Division title with the highlight being a victory over their closest rivals Wolves at Highfield Road in front of a record crowd of over 51,000. At the end of the match Jimmy conducted the thousands of fans on the pitch to a moving rendition of the Sky Blue Song. The crowds were flocking to Highfield Road to see the Sky Blue miracle and the club had the highest attendances of any Midland club with an average of over 28,000.

Jimmy oversaw more ground improvements that summer including the construction of the West Stand in twelve weeks, but behind the scenes a major story was brewing. Jimmy resigned on the eve of the club's debut in the First Division, to become Head of Sport for London Weekend Television. The news was a bombshell to both the supporters and players alike but his mind was made up. He later revealed that if Derrick Robins had met his request for a ten-year contract he would have stayed. After the impact he had on the club, many feel that it was a tragedy that Jimmy never took the opportunity to test his abilities at the highest level. Whether he would have been a success or not will never be known.

Jimmy was a natural on television and virtually invented the TV pundit role working alongside Brian Moore on 'The Big Match'. In 1973 he switched channels and joined the BBC and became the presenter of 'Match of the Day. His authoritative voice, insightful comments and sometimes controversial views not to mention his football knowledge made him a national treasure although 'the chin', as he was known, was often caricatured. 

In 1975 he returned to Coventry City as their first paid managing director but times had changed and the club had serious financial difficulties. Although he turned things around not all of his ideas went down well with the supporters. In 1981 in an effort to combat hooliganism he spearheaded the club's move to make Highfield Road all-seated and then watched as crowds plummeted with fans put off by the sterile feel of the stadium, higher prices and inconvenient ticket arrangements.

An investment in North American football was unsuccessful and the club's and his personal investment was lost. In 1983 he stepped down as chairman of the club but stayed involved in football with stints as chairman of Charlton Athletic and Fulham, helping both clubs through difficult times. In 2011, in what would be his last public appearance, he unveiled his own statue at the Ricoh Arena. Sadly Alzheimer's Disease had taken hold and Jimmy spent his last days in a care home.

Throughout his whole multi-faceted career Jimmy Hill was always committed to innovation in every aspect of the game, and at all times believed supporters came first. His influence lives on at Coventry City and throughout the wider football world. He was a true legend.


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