Jimmy Hill Day
Trust Chair, Tom Greatrex, reflects on the life and Fulham times of a former player and chairman that will forever be entwined with our club.
It is one of the curious anomalies of football that – a solitary League Cup tie aside- Fulham and Coventry City have only faced each other in a League season once since the 1940s, in Fulham’s final season in the old first division, which was Coventry’s first in their rise to relative modern prominence. It is more curious still given that both clubs have, in the era since the emergence of the Premier League, played in all four divisions of what we used to call the Football League. Our rise from 1997 coincided with Coventry’s decline and promotions and relegations in the same year meant we missed each other on the snakes and ladders of football fortune….until next weekend.
So to say that this fixture has been keenly anticipated is an understatement – for many of us ticking off a ‘new’ ground and playing a different opponent is one of the compensations of our most recent relegation back to the Championship. I am sure I was not the only person willing Coventry to stay up in the latter part of last season as it became clear our latest stay in the Premier League was going to be as fleeting as the previous one- and the prospect of finally playing each other, and with the news that they were returning to Coventry from the crumbling St Andrews, became real.
While there is more than one connection between the two teams – Don McKay and Micky Adams amongst them – there is only really a single name that links the two clubs most prominently, Jimmy Hill. A player with Fulham, the footballers trade unionist who campaigned for the abolition of the maximum wage, gracing the top division – to coach, manager and later Chairman of Coventry City as they rose to, and improbably became a mainstay of, the top division. A seemingly never-ending series of experiments, imaginative innovation and high profile stunts were a part of the Coventry story. The first all-seater stadium in England (subsequently reversed), the first electronic scoreboards and colour match programmes and pre-game entertainment – Hill was more than a manager or administrator in that period, but somebody with ideas to make football an entertainment business suited to the optimism of the 1960s.
As television came to the fore, he pioneered coverage of football both at ITV and then as a long-standing pundit on Match of the Day and, much later, Sky Sports. A profile that meant while Coventry and Fulham fans knew of Hill, he would soon become a household name. Infuriating to many (including sometimes his fellow pundits), he always seemed confident in his own opinions and resolute in his convictions, but was, without doubt, somebody with a huge appreciation for football and a deeply ingrained understanding of how much the sport meant to so many people while appreciating the need to find new audiences and build the supporter base at clubs.
That forthright style was in evidence when he spearheaded the group that stepped in to save Fulham in 1987 from the clutches of property developers and the spectre of Fulham Park Rangers. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that without the attention and profile Hill brought to the table, Fulham may not have been saved in an era where football was at an all-time low ebb. His determination helped keep the show on the road, with canny but quiet backers behind the scenes and a small but passionate fan base joining the fight. Of course, with such a strong personality it was inevitable there would be disagreements and he could be dismissive of other views, but the other side of that coin was also that he relished the exchange of views including, at times, with supporters. It was a difficult time at Fulham, but somehow we survived by a combination of luck, guile and sophisticated manoeuvring – and despite the hugely controversial deal with Cabra Estates – we are still Fulham, and still at Craven Cottage. Even if he got some of the calls wrong, it is clear to see with hindsight that Jimmy Hill’s motivation was always to keep the Club he had played with for so long alive.
Sadly, after a long period with dementia, Jimmy Hill died in 2015. Outside Coventry’s home (again) stadium, there is a statue of Hill. He did a lot for both clubs, in many capacities. The fixture of 2 October has been designated by Coventry as Jimmy Hill day, with bucket collections for the Coventry based charity foundation named in his honour and £1 of each ticket sold going to the same fund. While Sky continues to vandalise the fixture list, with the 12.30 lunchtime kick-off an added hassle factor, both the Fulham Supporters Trust and our counterparts the Sky Blue Trust are encouraging supporters of both clubs to join together at the Jimmy Hill statue outside the ground at 12 pm, so we can together – as fans of clubs that have so rarely played each other – mark the often high profile, sometimes controversial and always determined contribution he made to both of our clubs. It promises to be an intriguing fixture, but also a poignant one in many ways – so if you have managed to successfully navigate the new ticketing system and are going to Coventry please join us at midday – with scarves and banners – so we can mark the contribution of a man the likes of whom we will probably not see again.