Jimmy Armfield is being remembered. The former Blackpool and England defender has died from cancer aged 82.
I knew this was coming, but it doesn’t make it any easier to take. My own dealings with Jimmy began in the 1970’s, writes Vernon Grant.
On and off, for three subsequent decades I had the pleasure of spending time in his company. I listened. When you are in the presence of someone like him, you should listen. He chose his words carefully. Not for him glib, off the cuff answers to questions. Jimmy did all he could to avoid using footballing clichés.
My friend and former Yorkshire Television colleague John Helm brought Jimmy into radio broadcasting. Helm produced the wonderful ‘Sport on Two’ programme each Saturday, presented by Des Lynam and when the chief reporters were the best in the business, Bryon Butler and Peter Jones.
Jimmy had seen himself on TV a couple of times and didn’t think he was suited to telly. So when John approached him to join Radio 2, he relished the opportunity.
Adding Jimmy Armfield to the football commentary team was a masterstroke by John Helm. For many years thereafter he provided insight, common sense and balance to the world of football commentary.
John Helm hit the nail on the head today when he said: “He didn’t have a bad bone in his body. In Jimmy Armfield’s case, it would be impossible to think of anything that’s not nice to say. Because he was such a top, top gentleman.”
The man who was voted Young Footballer of the Year in 1959, and the best right back at the 1962 World Cup, might have joined Manchester United and been one of the Busby Babes who boarded that ill fated aircraft at Munich in February 1958. But Jimmy Armfield remained loyal to Blackpool. The football club and the town. He played 568 matches for his beloved Blackpool. You don’t get that sort of club loyalty these days. To the end of his life, he lived down the road from the Blackpool training ground.
It always struck me how reluctant Jimmy was to be as cynical as I am about the modern game. But he did agree that players need to toughen up.
I shall always recall how Jimmy spoke about walking into the Leeds United dressing room and picking up the pieces at Elland Road after the traumatic 44 day reign of Brian Clough. He knew that at least two senior players had hoped to take over as manager once the squad had happily seen Clough depart. He quietly set about improving the atmosphere. He took Leeds United to the 1975 European Cup final when they were cheated out of victory by the clearly bent referee (my words, not his).
Others who knew or worked with Jimmy have paid tribute on Twitter and Facebook. I agree with many of the sentiments expressed.
The vastly experienced journalist and author Norman Giller wrote: “He epitomised dignity…he always set the highest standards in behaviour and demeanour.”
David Anderson of the Mirror newspaper also recalled the fact that Jimmy had a quick wit. David tweeted: “Such sad news about Jimmy Armfield. I’ll always love his anecdote about Howard Wilkinson moaning to the press about criticising him and challenges them, saying “how many caps did any of you win?”. And Armfield chirps up from the back “43”. Wilkinson was in stitches.”
Anderson went on to say something with which I also concur: “Unlike today’s former pros who think they only have to pick up a microphone to become part of the media, Jimmy went off after he retired and studied to become a fully-qualified journalist – and a damn fine one too. Says much about the class of the man.”
It does. Jimmy didn’t want to be involved in any project that was just OK. That continued until his last months. He wanted any tribute programme broadcast in his honour to be the best it could be.
The best radio programme I have heard for many a month was the one BBC Radio 5live called ‘Jimmy Armfield: A Football Gentleman.’
When the producer and interviewer arrived at his house to record the hour long special he asked: “Is this going to be used for the day when I’m no longer here? In which case, let’s make sure it’s bloody good.”
It was. It is. Two answers in particular hit me between the eyeballs. Listen out for when he is asked about his reaction to not being in the winning 1966 World Cup team because of injury. He had been the team captain. Also listen to how he reflects on the fact that he might well have been on that Munich flight with his friends, Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton.
5 Live will broadcast that special interview once again at 10pm on Monday night. You’ll be able to listen back to that on the BBC Radio iPlayer. It’s a fitting tribute to the man. In his own words.