Hill and the glens (Jimmy Hill)

Hill and the glens (Jimmy Hill)

Sports commentator Jimmy Hill loves Glenlivet, Laphroaig and Scotland generally; so why don't the Scots like him more?

People | 16 Mar 1999 | Issue 2 | By Tim Atkin

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Jimmy Hill is a controversial figure in Scotland, especially to that country’s fanatical band of football supporters. Hill’s relationship with the tartan army has never been the same since he accused David Narey of opening the scoring with a ‘toe poke’ in a match against Brazil during the 1982 World Cup. Scotland went on to lose 4-1 and as the fans trudged away from the ground, one of them spat at British television’s most famous chin. Ever since that fateful game, Hill has been vilified by sections of the Scottish faithful. It probably didn’t help matters when,
as a pundit during the 1998 World Cup, Hill appeared in a bow-tie printed with the Cross of St George.‘The fans were looking for something to moan about in 1982 and it continued from there,’ says the outspoken 70-year-old broadcaster, adding that the whole thing has been exaggerated by the media. In France last year, when Scotland had another disappointing World Cup, a fan came up to Hill in the street and gave him his team shirt, possibly in an act of self-loathing. ‘I took it home, washed it, ironed it and it’s hanging in my wardrobe.’ Perhaps Hill will wear it on television one day.Hill has always enjoyed his visits to Scotland. ‘I’ve never had a problem when I’ve been there; the hospitality is always tremendous. I have enormous respect for the Scottish people and I’ve had many close Scottish friends over the years. There are all sorts of things I appreciate about the country – its education system, its manners, its golf courses and naturally its whisky.’ His most recent trip was no exception. Hill spent five days on the east coast with his wife Bryony, partly as an excuse to play golf for the first time at Royal Dornoch and Moray. ‘The weather was like the Med, and we had a wonderful time staying in bed and breakfasts,’ he says. ’One place near Dornoch cost us £20 for the night, including a generous dram of malt as a night cap and one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. We drank our malts sitting downstairs by the piano. Bryony hadn’t played since she was a girl, but the more she drank, the more it came back to her. We were made to feel so welcome.’ We can conclude that the landlord was probably not a football supporter. Golf has always attracted Hill to Scotland. He was a regular on the BBC’s Pro-Celebrity Golf series in the Seventies and early Eighties when it was staged at two of the country’s greatest courses, Gleneagles and Turnberry. ‘It gave me the chance to play with Lee Trevino, Seve Ballesteros and Peter Allis, which doesn’t happen to many ten handicap golfers.’ Did he feel nervous, then? ‘Not really, but I was a better golfer then than I am now.’ Hill was more jittery as a young professional footballer in the early 1950s. ’The difference between a confident player and an unconfident one is enormous. We were under a lot of pressure to perform even then. The money was nothing like what it is now, but it was still nerve-racking playing in front of a large crowd.’ Hill says that, before one early game, he had a nip of whisky to calm his nerves. And the result?’ We won 6-0, so it probably didn’t hurt.’Excessive drinking was far less of problem among footballers in the Fifties. The addiction which has affected the likes of Tony Adams, Paul Merson and Paul Gascoigne was very rare then. Why? ‘£40,000 a week puts players under a lot of extra pressure; there’s also been a big increase in the press and television coverage, not to mention public expectation. In my day, we were paid so little that we couldn’t afford to become alcoholics. We might go for a pint in the pub after a match, but that was about it.’ Hill says that a lot of players were teetotal. ‘We used to have five-a-side matches during training between drinkers and non-drinkers. And guess what? The drinkers usually won.’The Alan Shearers and David Beckhams of the Premiership owe a lot to Hill. It was Hill, a self-confessed ‘serial campaigner’, who as chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association overturned the maximum wage of £20 a week and secured freedom of contract for players. Hill has been an important footballing figure in other ways, too: as manager and later chairman of Coventry, as head of sport at London Weekend Television, as one of the first men to introduce ‘soccer’ to the United States and as presenter of the BBC’s Match of the Day between 1973 and 1989. Hill has recently switched channels to Sky TV, where he has his own show called The Last Word. But he’s still best-known for his work with the BBC as a presenter, analyst and, more recently, for his entertaining disagreements with fellow pundits, Terry Venables and Alan Hansen. As a presenter on the Beeb, Hill was responsible for two classic Colemanballs. He once introduced the rugby commentator Nigel Starmer-Smith with the news that ‘he had seven craps as a scrum-half for England’. On another occasion, he advised Match of the Day viewers:’Don’t forget to put your cocks back before you go to sleep.’None of this has been as much fun as playing professionally for 12 years with Brentford and Fulham. ‘If I hadn’t had a bad knee, I could have gone on for longer. I was still fit enough. Everything else I’ve done in football has been a substitute for actually playing the game.’ His greatest moment as a player, he says, was winning promotion to the old First Division with Fulham in 1960 in a team which included the legendary Johnny Haynes. After his retirement Hill began to take a combined interest in whisky and fox hunting. A burgeoning friendship with the showjumper Ted Edgar prompted Hill to learn to ride. A few weeks later, he found himself on his first hunt in Warwickshire. He continued to ride with horse and hounds, sometimes as often as a dozen times a year, until 1981. ‘Whisky is almost obligatory when you’re hunting,’ he says. ‘That’s when I started to appreciate what’s known as a “stirrup cup”.’On another occasion, Hill was persuaded to jump the first fence at Aintree on the eve of the Grand National alongside the jockey Terry Biddlecombe. Both needed a whisky before they could face the fence and the BBC cameras. ‘Until that moment I had not been really worried,’ Hill recalls in his recently published autobiography, The Jimmy Hill Story (£17.99, Hodder & Stoughton), ‘but to think that one of my heroes and the nation’s leading National Hunt jockey needed a heart starter changed my mind.’ Hill cleared the fence and nearly cleared his horse’s head, too.Whisky is usually drunk in less stressful circumstances chez Hill. ‘I like to sit at home with a glass of Scotch whisky, especially in the winter,’ he says. Hill prefers malts to blends and has two contrasting favourites – Laphroaig and The Glenlivet – but also enjoys Irish whiskey when he’s travelling in Ireland. Hill drinks his whisky with water, but doesn’t worry too much about the precise location of the spring. ‘It would be arrogant of me to say I have refined tastes, because I don’t. As often as not it’s the circumstances which are really important, especially if someone I don’t like is buying a whisky for me. Actually, I’m happiest drinking with my wife or with friends.’Hill doesn’t like the idea of pairing whisky and food. In fact, this is possibly the only match he’d go out of his way to avoid. ‘I’ve been to some strange functions where whiskies have been served throughout the meal, but I wasn’t very impressed. Whisky is perfect in its place; but that’s not it in my view. I’d much rather drink wine with food. Whisky is my evening or bedtime tipple.’ One of Hill’s more memorable bottles was consumed with the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson. The two football personalities bumped into each other at midnight in the lobby of a Glasgow hotel. Hill had been at a ceremony earlier in the day to present Ferguson with a trophy as Manager of the Year. ‘I forget which one of us suggested a night-cap, but by three o’clock in the morning we had trained the night porter to Olympic standard and he didn’t spill a drop of that comforting Scottish liquid.’ Hill was extremely hurt when, several years later, Ferguson referred to him as a ‘prat’ for criticising a bad tackle by the temperamental French star, Eric Cantona. Normally, Hill is unfazed by criticism. He has always had strong views and the courage to defend them, whether as a manager, player, chairman, pundit or union activist. As he moves nimbly into his seventies, still playing golf and tennis at least once a week, he still has plenty to say, particularly on the subject of football. His current bugbear is the standard of refereeing. ‘As the game becomes faster and more technical, it’s time we encouraged ex-players to become referees. The reason most people become referees is because they weren’t very good at the game in the first place. We’ve got to change that. But clubs are frightened of criticising referees in case they make enemies.’ Hill is also worried by certain trends in football. ‘The big clubs are getting bigger and bigger. Increasingly, there are only eight of them who are capable of living the grand life. They have the most money and the best players and, in turn, will win most of the trophies. At other, less fortunate clubs, managers are abused if they’re not successful, so they end up spending more money than they have in an attempt to placate the fans. That’s why they get into financial trouble. Fans want their clubs to be as successful as Arsenal or Manchester United, but they don’t want to understand the true situation.’ Hill has witnessed some terrible things in football. He was there at Hillsborough when Liverpool fans were crushed to death in 1989 and he was the BBC studio anchor when Juventus fans died four years earlier at Heysel in Belgium. ‘Bruce Forsyth handed over to me from a live programme with a joke about our chins. He didn’t know about the tragedy that was unfolding, and somehow I had to change the whole mood. It was dreadful.’ Most of Hill’s career has been highly enjoyable, bringing riches and recognition to this particular South London lad. He’s proud of what he’s achieved as a player, manager and television personality and nowhere near ready to switch off the autocue. As well as stars like Raquel Welch, he’s been fortunate to watch and meet some of the century’s greatest footballers – Johan Cruyff, Bobby Charlton, George Best, Pele and Diego Maradona. And the best of the lot? ‘Johnny Haynes was the best passer I’ve ever seen, but as an all-round player, my favourite would have to be Cruyff.’ For Hill, few things can compare with the talents of that indecently gifted Dutchman. Perhaps only a dram of 10-year-old Laphroaig can come close.
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