DAVID WALKER, sports editor of the Daily Mirror, pays a personal tribute to Jimmy Armfield, who has died at the age of 82 after a battle with cancer.
Football and journalism have lost one of our finest ambassadors with the passing of the great Jimmy Armfield.
A warm, welcoming man, he mentored young footballers in his days as a manager and later helped tutor young journalists when he had switched to a career in the media.
Jimmy loved few things more than using personal anecdotes of his long, illustrious playing career to explain the key principles of establishing relationships between the media and Britain’s sporting elite. He was a font of wisdom.
I first met Jimmy back in 1973, in his final year as manager of Bolton Wanderers before his move to Leeds United. I had been at school with Jimmy’s nephew, who was an outstanding young sportsman in his own right. Tragically Jimmy’s nephew was killed in a car crash but a link was forged between us.
Jimmy showed his paternal streak to guide me in my formative days. I may have been the rookie but Jimmy would spot me at training grounds and waiting for players and check that all was well in my world.
After a year at Bolton he moved to Leeds. The Elland Road job was one of the best in football back then but also one of the most toxic. Don Revie had left in the summer of 1974 to take charge of England and the Leeds board had decided to recruit the arch-critic of their ex-manager and team, Brian Clough.
Clough’s confrontational style just didn’t work at Leeds. A fact even Clough quickly acknowledged. So Jimmy was asked to come in, act as peacemaker and calm the troubled waters. He did that job quite brilliantly.
In his first season Leeds reached the European Cup final. They lost to Bayern Munich in Paris.
Even the German media admitted Leeds were unlucky to lose. The view from Leeds was that they were cheated out of their ultimate glory by some bizarre refereeing decisions that favoured Bayern.
But Jimmy knew he had to get on more thoughtfully and patiently with the job Brian Clough had started; the dismantling of one of the superpowers of English football. But whereas Clough relished smashing the place to pieces, Jimmy preferred a low-key, stealthy approach.
The superstars of the Sixties gradually departed and Jimmy brought in new faces. Maintaining Leeds at the pinnacle of the English and European game proved agonisingly beyond him but he was no disaster at Elland Road.
Unfortunately, after the Revie years a succession of top ten finishes and cup near misses were deemed failure Within a few years Leeds directors realised Jimmy’s reign had actually been a relative success as their club plummeted towards relegation.
Jimmy’s ability as a diplomat certainly took the sting out of some tough times. I think it was John Giles, a skilful midfield kingpin throughout the Leeds glory years, who recalled asking to see Jimmy for a showdown meeting only to find the manager preferred talking about the length of the grass at Elland Road and whether groundsman John Reynolds should change his mower length.
Jimmy could filibuster with the best MP. Giles, one of the sharpest minds in the game, left the manager’s office in a state of weary bewilderment.
Jimmy never deserted his home in his beloved Blackpool, even when the Leeds job meant trekking across the Pennines on a daily basis. One of his signings in the rebuilding was centre-back Paul Hart from Blackpool.
After being sacked by Leeds in 1978 Jimmy switched to a career in journalism, predominantly with the Daily Express and BBC Radio 5 as an expert summariser. It’s fair to say Jimmy’s name opened doors at every club he called
Paul recalls being given a lift to Leeds by his new boss who spent the journey chatting about the game and smoking his pipe.
In those days Jimmy was a committed pipe smoker. A habit he would pay a terrible price for later in his life. He used to tap out the ash of his pipe on the vinyl roof of his Ford Granada as he sped across the M62.
One day Hart noticed that cars travelling around them were flashing their lights and gesturing at Jimmy’s car. The happy Leeds duo hadn’t realised that some stray pipe embers had set the car’s vinyl roof on fire. Soon the smoke was filling the cabin.
Thankfully, nothing more untoward happened but the incident did encourage Harty to buy a house closer to Elland Road very quickly.
After being sacked by Leeds in 1978 Jimmy switched to a career in journalism, predominantly with the Daily Express and BBC Radio 5 as an expert summariser. It’s fair to say Jimmy’s name opened doors at every club he called.
After all, and many people forget this, Jimmy was acclaimed as the best right-back in the world at the 1962 World Cup finals. It was only through injury that he lost his first team status to George Cohen for the triumphant 1966 Finals but remained a loyal member of Alf Ramsey’s squad.
So if Jimmy called Old Trafford asking for Alex Ferguson, he usually got his man. He appreciated the problems emerging from the press box as a generation of journalists he’d grown up with moved on into retirement. But he always retained his sharp sense of humour and willingness to poke fun.
Jimmy was a habitual cap wearer and would earnestly tell the Young Turks around him how they’d be losing thirty per cent of their body heat through their heads on a cold match day. On one occasion a young journo spotted Jim’s patchwork quilt cap and taunted him with “what’s that you’ve got on your head Jimmy”?
Quick as a flash Jimmy retorted: “If you don’t like this one I’ve got 42 others at home.”
Those were, of course, his England caps.
So farewell to a great man who always kept a real perspective on life. He took pride in being a church organist and I recall calling him at home one day in the wake of a bad Leeds result.
As I prepared to rake over the embers of the previous day’s woes, Jimmy calmly interjected and said: “You know I had real problems this morning. There was something wrong with the stops on the church organ. We’ll have to get it sorted out.”
Jimmy Armfield RIP. A man whose integrity stood out in three worlds as a player, manager and journalist.
The SJA charity partner for the British Sports and British Sports Journalism Awards is Alzheimer’s Society. Unite now – text UNITE to 70677 to donate £3 a month or visit alzheimers.org.uk/donatetoday