This week Johnny has cleaned and polished his love gun until it shines because he’s in the company of one of the old school greats. That’ll be Jimmy Armfield, then.
Why the love?
Now 81, he was a one-club man, turning out for Blackpool 629 times. He was also in the 1966 World Cup-winning squad, and manager of Bolton and Leeds United, leading the former to a league title and the latter to a European Cup Final, only to be cheated out of victory. But he gets a Love Letter here for his work on 5 live as a match summariser.
Actually worked for the Daily Express from 1979 to 1991 as a journalist. Hard to see him fitting into the tits-for-clicks, hysterical culture that comics such as the Express embody today.
His warm Lancastrian tones have been heard as a co-comm on the BBC since the late 70s. There is no more avuncular presence on football media but that shouldn’t imply a lack of rigour or perception. This is no elderly man in his dotage rambling on about the good old days. No, he looks at football with an older, wiser eye, not a bitter or cynical one. That’s why everyone loves him.
And that’s why on 23 September, 2005, he received a civic reception in Blackpool just after his 70th birthday. A tangerine flag was flown from the town hall for the day in his honour. There’s a statue to him outside Bloomfield Road and the stadium has the Jimmy Armfield South Stand in his honour.
When I was little, my Yorkshire mother would tell me to “just be a nice lad and have good manners. Good manners cost nothing.” And God knows, I went too far from that advice for far too long, but she was so right. But Jimmy, born three years after her, would not have needed such guidance.
These days we talk about people who are great or good, but the concept and value of decency is perhaps seen as a little arcane in today’s world: a world where Love Island is A Thing and vulgarity is a currency traded daily.
Jimmy is the embodiment of decency. He is polite, self-effacing and modest. He is never bitter, rude or over-emotional. A review of his autobiography in The Times says it well:
“Authoritative and engaging, but at the same time warm-hearted and kind, there is not a harsh word, and hardly a critical one, in it.”
That’s our Jim.
Has a lovely riff that always starts “That’s what I call…” and it’s usually what we’d all call it too, but somehow this is very endearing. That and his enthusiastic declaration: “I was right behind that…”
In 2007 he told Radio Lancashire (in itself a very Jimmy thing to do) that he had a non-Hodgkin lymphoma in his throat and was undergoing chemo. When he returned to 5 live, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Sadly, it returned in 2016 and he had to undergo more treatment but Jimmy took it with the sort of humble stoicism that we’d all want to own, but never could.
“I am better now than I have been for over a month,” he said. “It is amazing how quickly medicine has moved on, and I am thankful for that. I don’t feel poorly – I can get out and about, go shopping and go for a walk.”
One of 5 live’s stellar commentators, Conor McNamara, tells a story which gives such insight into Jimmy’s character:
“I worked with Jimmy on my debut. I was so nervous my knee was bouncing up and down during the first half. Eventually I felt a hand on my knee and it was Jimmy. It was his way of calming me down and letting me know I was doing OK.”
Ian Dennis, another of 5 live’s commentating stars, added:
“‘I remember when I was starting in 2002, I phoned my dad to tell him I would be working with Jimmy Armfield the next day. It meant that much to me. To me, it was like a landmark moment in my career. It was special. It was nerve-racking, of course, but the great thing about Jimmy is that he is a gentleman. He will talk to anybody about football. He is exactly like he sounds on the radio, a genuine, warm guy who also happens to be an excellent broadcaster.”
As David Pleat once said: “Jimmy is a first-class human being. Everyone in football knows that.”
Wiping a tear away? I know I am.
A bright man, he was accepted into Liverpool University to study economics before Blackpool came calling.
What he brings to radio gigs is huge knowledge. Jimmy marked Garrincha. Jimmy played against Bestie. Jimmy knew Sir Alf.
But there’s a crucial aspect to this. While others bemoan the passing of some notional golden era and look at the modern game with the cynical eye, Jimmy isn’t for that at all. “Despite all the changes and big money involved I try not to take it too seriously.” And, y’know, we do need to learn from our elders sometimes.
He wears clothes. But this is of no concern to Jim, so we shall draw a veil over it this week.
Proper Football Man rating
Jim is a tricky one for the PFMs. He ticks a lot of boxes: One of Sir Alf’s men; a Proper player back when men were men and so were the women. They have to respect that. A one-club man, too. Sweet. The PFM pays lip service to all these things and vaunts them in abstract whilst never embodying them himself. But Jim’s lack of grandstanding about how then is better than now disturbs them. Their whole life is based on the notion that ‘the game’s gone’ due to foreigns and women, and any old bloke who won’t agree is looked at with a nasty disbelief. You can’t underestimate the degree of chippy bitterness that runs through the PFM veins and they seek only the company of people who also bleed self-regarding paranoia.
Someone with the whiff of laundry starch and not carrying a test tube of Reidy’s latest potion of Slug Pellets, DDT and Ruddles Best bitter is never going to be accepted into the PFM-ocracy. Also being nice to people, being polite and well-behaved is anathema to any PFM who thinks shouting is better than thinking, and that physically assaulting someone is usually a sign of friendship.
The Proper Football Man is also wary about ex-players who really have been there and done it on a wet Tuesday at Boundary Park, but doesn’t make a fuss about it, as they wear these things like a badge of honour and ceaselessly ram the fact down everyone’s throat.
But the PFM knows when he has to keep his mouth shut and not let the fetid air out of his overfed face, so is happy to nod and shake Jimmy’s hand and laugh a little too loudly.
What the people say
There are wonderful comments here which perfectly express the man’s qualities. Those who don’t listen to the radio will have literally no idea what he does, but to the elite for whom radio football is the best football, he looms large and golden in our lives. If you know of him, these comments won’t surprise you. If you don’t, this must all seem very odd. Serves you right for championing visuals over aurals. Remember, the pictures are always better in your head:
‘Gentleman without ego and no axe to grind. Battled cancer with great dignity and remains relevant in the modern game. He speaks, you listen.’
‘The grandee of football who has done it all but who always comes across as humble. A true gent.’
‘A warm, comforting presence for what seems like decades. His love for the game and soft tones are ready-made for radio commentary.’
‘One of the greatest gentlemen ever to play, coach, manage or talk about the game. A window to the past, always with an eye on the present.’
‘He reminds me how old I am as I remember him as a manager, but his commentary and attitude reminds me why I’ve loved football for so long.’
‘Epitome of decency. Delivers praise without hyperbole, criticism without vitriol, nostalgia without smuggery. Can smell the bovril when he’s on.’
‘The Gandalf of radio commentary.’
‘Has got on with the job quietly and effectively all these years without any ex-pro showiness/ego. Today’s ex-pros could learn from him.’
‘Far less ranty about the state of the current England team than others who, unlike Jimmy, don’t actually have a World Cup winner’s medal.’
‘Great link to the ‘olden days’ for someone who started watching footie in the ’80s like myself. Love that he’s not an ‘it was better in my day’ type. Still loves the game and it shows.’
‘Wonderful, soothing voice. Great memories of Radio 5 commentaries every Saturday afternoon. So much insight and understanding of the game.’
‘So glad you finally picked him. My all-time favourite co-comm. Decency, charm, knowledge, beautifully understated.’
‘Enjoy listening to his analysis. Still clearly loves the game and thankfully not one of those “in my day” types. Knows his stuff.’
‘I remember Howard Wilkinson, in charge of England, getting annoyed with press and finally saying, how many caps have you all got then, and Jimmy Armfield piped up “43 Howard” Great stuff!!’
‘Speaks so affectionately of the game. Even recently didn’t have a weary cynicism of more contemporary retired peers. Fantastic to listen to.’
‘Many great voices on the radio, but none compare to Jimmy when it comes to the maxim “he talks, you listen”. And such a gent too.’
‘Met him at Elland Rd once. Absolute gentleman. Seemed genuinely interested in how a Man Utd fan got stuck working at Leeds Utd!’
‘The voice of football.’
‘Extremely knowledgeable and decent. A constant presence in my life for 3 decades, I have no idea what he looks like!’
‘Radiates knowledge and warmth to equal degrees. Insightful and delightful. Enthusiastic yet still has gravitas. Simply, a class act.’
‘Knowledgeable, distinctive, warm, but most of all conveys an unending love for the game.’
‘Caramel for the ears.’
‘Quite simply the nicest man in football. What an amazing voice. Grew up listening to his co-commentary on Radio 2 and 5. Wonderful.’
‘The voice of your favourite grandad. Insightful yet respectful, in love with the game rather than the players. Just brilliant really.’
‘A comfortable sweater. A reassuring pipe. Stories from back in the day. And another comfortable sweater.’
‘Amid the money and tabloid frenzy of today’s game, he reminds me what’s pure about football. So knowledgeable, passionate and bloody lovely.’
‘Universally loved by anyone who’s had the pleasure of meeting him.’
‘I like to picture him perched on a bespoke, plump, BBC-embroidered cushion, wrapped in a blanket and with a Bovril never not out of reach.’
‘An absolute gentleman. Class and dignity, and you feel like you know him personally. When he returned from ill health, you feel glad he’s on.’
‘The warmest voice, perfect for radio. Perfect co-comm, keeps it simple, adds genuine knowledge and insight even in the modern era.’
‘He sends a Christmas card to my Dad every year. People forget he took Leeds to a European Cup Final and he’s too humble to remind them.’
I can do no better than to leave this piece with the lovely words of Jimmy himself. In 2012 he said: “Today I am as busy as ever. I stepped into community life and have filled various roles including being the High-Sheriff of Lancashire, the president of Age UK Blackpool, a governor at my old school and a church organist; and that’s to name just a few.
“I loved every single minute of my playing career and didn’t take one day of it for granted. I think my generation was programmed not to. I was a war baby, I didn’t taste chocolate until I was 11, and grew up with rationing. We grew up in the dark, holidays were very rare and so any sort of perk was a bonus and we were grateful for it. That’s how I viewed my playing days. Even when I was voted the best right-back in the world after the 1962 World Cup in Chile – by the way FIFA, I still haven’t received my trophy! – I didn’t think I was suddenly big time. It was just back to Blackpool to prepare for another season.”
God bless you, Jim.