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SUPREMOS: A profile of legendary boss Jimmy Hill

Remembering JH on the anniversary of his death...

19 December 2019


SUPREMOS: A profile of legendary boss Jimmy Hill

Remembering JH on the anniversary of his death...

19 December 2019

On This Day in 2015, legendary Coventry City Manager and Chairman Jimmy Hill sadly passed away at the age of 87.

In this series first published in matchday programme PUSB, writer Rob Mason reflects on the highs and lows on those who have occupied the hot-seat at Coventry City - and in this edition we profile 'JH'...

That this series is called Sky Blues Supremos is down to Jimmy Hill, as is so much else in the club’s history. It was Hill who changed City’s colours to sky blue. From the variations of a darker blue and white that had been in use since the mid-twenties in came the sky blue that the club has become synonymous with.

Hill didn’t conjure up the colour on a whim, sky blue had been part of the strip from the era when it wasn’t just a change the colour of its kit but the name of the club back in the 1800s, when Singers became Coventry City. Although not the original colour, sky blue had been a colour Singers wore.

Change. It is a good word with which to summarise the club during Jimmy Hill’s time in charge. That he was able to do so was largely down to the fact he was the first manager to have total control of team matters, a stipulation he insisted on when accepting the post. It was also down to the fact that he later became managing director and chairman.  

A visionary and at times autocratic ruler, not every change Hill brought in was universally popular and he was a character who attracted enemies as well as friends, but undoubtedly Jimmy Hill was one of the most influential figures in post-war football and quite probably the most influential figure in the post-war history of The Sky Blues, who even owe that nickname to him.

Jimmy was born in July 1928, Balham, London, ironically the son of that rarest of beasts, a failed bookie – called William Hill!  As a boy Jimmy supported Crystal Palace and did his National Service as a clerk in the Royal Army Service Corps.  During World War Two he came into football as a junior with Fulham in 1943, although he didn’t play at first team level during war-time for The Cottagers, being just 17 when the war ended. He did play for Denmark Hill Police and as an amateur for six months for Reading, during which time he mainly played at third team level.

There was also a trial for Folkestone before making a Football League debut in the colours of Brentford in 1949 who he joined in May of that year, one of the first signings by player/manager Jackie Gibbons. An inside forward, Hill would play 83 league games for The Bees, scoring 10 times, Brentford finishing ninth in what is now the Championship in both of Hill’s full seasons at Griffin Park.

It was in March of his third campaign that Jimmy returned to Craven Cottage, this time as a first teamer in the top-flight. He made a goal-scoring debut at Blackpool on March 8th 1952 but his side lost 4-1 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 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 Brentford 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.

The next three seasons continued in similar vein other than Osborne being replaced by Duggie Livingstone in 1956 but in 1957-58, with Hill now at inside right and scoring 16 times – including five in a 6-1 win at Doncaster 60 years ago last month – Fulham featured on the fringe of the promotion race. They also reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup, Hill scoring in every round, his sixth goal coming in the semi-final against a Manchester United side showing incredible strength six weeks on from the Munich air disaster.

Promotion followed the following season. Hill didn’t score until Good Friday but then hit a hat-trick in a sensational 6-3 victory over Sheffield Wednesday who would be champions.

By now Hill had been chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association for a couple of years, during which he had seen his attractive Fulham side pulling in good attendances and even a record gate at Brighton. Despite the money coming into the game, little of it was making its way into players’ pay packets. At the time the maximum wage allowed was £20 per week, although illegal payments were allegedly commonplace. Showing the leadership he would become renowned for Hill spearheaded a campaign to scrap the maximum wage.

Backing George Eastham who went on strike at Newcastle Hill played a major role; along with Cliff Lloyd a former Fulham player and PFA leader, in the abolition of the maximum wage, and must have been owed at least a drink by his Fulham team-mate Haynes who became the game’s first £100 a week player.  Hill’s success was a sign of things to come.

Hill’s own playing days came to an end through a knee injury just as the maximum wage was ending. Having scored his last goal against Blackpool – the same club he’d scored his first Fulham goal against almost exactly nine years earlier - the last of his 276 league games for the club came at Everton on 4th March 1961, Fulham finishing four points above relegated Newcastle who by now had cashed in on Eastham, selling him to Arsenal for almost £50,000.

Having worked as a clerk with an insurance company before becoming a professional player, and given the wide range of endeavours that occupied him in the future, Jimmy’s choice of his next move after hanging up his boots was always going to be a big decision for him.

For a man who in later years became hugely influential in TV coverage of the game it seems a quirk of co-incidence that it was a man who commentated on one of the first games broadcast on radio who had a connection with Hill coming to Coventry. John Snagge had commentated for the BBC on a Hull v Stoke game as far back as 1927. In 1961 he was Chairman of the Lord’s Taverners, the cricketing charity now chaired by Michael Parkinson. It was at the Lord’s Taverners Ball in the capital that Hill chanced upon Coventry chairman Derrick Robbins. 

Coventry had just lost at home to Hill’s boyhood heroes Palace and Jimmy was sounded out about taking over as manager. When City lost at home again, but this time to King’s Lynn in the FA Cup, the need for a new man in charge became urgent. Having laid down his terms in the manner befitting someone who had led the PFA, a new era in Coventry history began.

Four wins in the first five games changed the mood and although that new boss bounce tailed off as City finished 14th in the third division, it was evident that the sixties would indeed by swinging ones for City supporters. The first new number one after Hill took over was Frankie Vaughan’s ‘Tower of Strength’ and while that might have been an apt title for Jimmy’s time at Highfield Road, his time at the club was going to have a much more modern feel.

Crowds grew as the Sky Blue Revolution got going. Hill’s first full season brought not just a jump of 10 places to fourth but a thrilling run to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. Terry Bly’s goal in the quarter-final against Manchester United was one of 30 he scored after Hill captured him from Peterborough. Bly had scored twice when third division Norwich had knocked United out of the cup in 1959, with one of those goals being so good United ‘keeper Harry Gregg applauded it. 

Two seasons before coming to Coventry he scored 52 in the league alone for Posh, a post-war record that still stands. Surely Bly would be at the forefront of City’s promotion charge to come? In what was the first indication of Hill’s single-mindedness in doing what he believed was best for the club regardless of what anyone else thought, Bly was sold to Notts County for £1,000 more than the £12,000 he had cost.

At Meadow Lane Bly was partnered with future West Brom and England man Jeff Astle but the blend wasn’t there and Bly soon dropped into non-league. Disgruntled supporters had an early opportunity to compare the new with the old.  Two of the first five games of the new season were against Bly’s new club. Both were won without a goal conceded, Bly’s replacement George Hudson scoring three across the two games. Hudson would go on to be a Coventry legend, beginning with him hitting 24 goals in only 32 games as Coventry topped a table which Notts propped up.

Consolidating at the higher level in 10th place, a promotion push saw City miss out by a point in third place, while a decent cup run only ended in the fifth round against eventual winners Everton.  Despite the sale of Hudson which was as controversial as that of Bly, there was silverware at City 12 months later as Coventry strode to the second division title having not lost any of the last 25 games and been beaten at home just once in the league.

These were sensational times at Highfield Road, the best the club had ever enjoyed. Over 33,000 turned up for the opening game of the season against Sheffield United, 20,000 more than when Hill had arrived. Less than six weeks later Coventry faced Sheffield opposition again, this time Wednesday at Hillsborough but a week before a 4-0 home win took The Owls to the top of the table Jimmy’s shock resignation to take up a lucrative post with London Weekend Television reverberated throughout the game - Noel Cantwell taking over at City.

In five years at LWT Hill would create ‘The Big Match,’ appear frequently on ‘On the Ball’ and at the 1970 World Cup introduce a panel of pundits for the first time. Just as he left Coventry suddenly, five years later he surprisingly resigned his TV post to set up his own consultancy group, occupying himself with negotiating sports sponsorship at a time when he was also acting as a commercial consultant to clubs in the capital, including his old club Fulham where he became commercial manager in 1973.

Nonetheless Hill would never be far from TV screens and having joined the BBC became an integral part of ‘Match of the Day’ before moving to Sky TV in 1999. Jimmy’s media work also saw him work for newspapers and magazines and at one point in the late sixties even front his own magazine ‘Jimmy Hill’s Football Weekly.’

By April 1975 he was back at Coventry as Managing Director, later taking over as Chairman.  This time he stayed at the club until May 1983 after which he became a director at Charlton from November 1984 to March ’87, being acting Chairman for six months from December ‘84 shortly before the club left The Valley to play at Selhurst Park.

Having been Chairman of Coventry and Charlton, Hill took on a third Chairmanship in April 1987 when he took over back at Fulham after fighting previous chairman David Bulstrode’s plans to merge the club with QPR and sell Craven Cottage as a housing development, although again not everything he did at Fulham met with universal approval as he worked with the major shareholder and vice-chairman Bill Muddyman. Along with another ex-player Tom Wilson, Hill resigned from the Fulham board in 1997 shortly before the club was sold to Mohamed Fayed.

While Fayed installed a statue of Michael Jackson at Craven Cottage, one of Jimmy Hill was unveiled at The Ricoh Arena in 2011. It was a fitting tribute to a man who left an indelible impression on the club and the wider game. A penetrating analyst throughout his media career it would be fascinating to hear Hill’s assessment of himself.

He introduced so much that is good to the game. Highfield Road was transformed while he was there as Coventry were years ahead of everyone else in bringing in all-seater stadia and was a leading proponent in the introduction of three points for a win in 1981 as a means of producing more attacking football.

However, Hill made questionable decisions more than once. In 1982 he acted as a consultant for an ill-starred tour of apartheid South Africa, a touring team managed by John Barnwell playing three games. Hill later found himself embroiled in controversy trying to defend the racist comments made by Big Ron Atkinson, that cost Atkinson his TV role in 2004.

Often a paragon of fair play Jimmy offended many when on Match of the Day - he lambasted a ball-girl for speedily returning the ball in the last minute of an FA Cup tie in which Liverpool grabbed a late equaliser at Blackburn, and there was the 1977 incident when he was reprimanded by the FA after the score of a key game affecting the relegation show-down with Bristol City was displayed on the electronic score-board at Highfield Road, another innovation which he had introduced to the game.

Hill may not have always demonstrated the Corinthian spirit he often espoused on TV but whatever it took he liked to win, and in a sense that made the great innovator as old fashioned as anyone in football.  As multi-faceted an individual as any of the wonderful characters featured in this series. There was the day in 1972 when he emerged from the crowd at Highbury to take over as linesman when the original flag-man tore his ligaments and Jimmy as a qualified referee stepped in. A year earlier Hill had written ‘Good Old Arsenal’ which was taken to number 16 in the charts by the Gunners’ double winning squad. Jimmy had also created the Coventry club song, the Sky Blue Song, along with director John Camkin.

Jimmy Hill lived to the grand age of 87, passing away in December 2015. His latter days were affected by the onset of Alzheimer’s disease but for supporters of Coventry City his huge contribution to totally transforming the club is one that makes him a truly iconic figure. 

This Saturday is our annual Jimmy Hill Day, where we celebrate JH's life and promote the work of the Jimmy Hill Legacy Fund. To donate, click here. 

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