Football so often feels like a s***ty thing in a s***ty world, but then someone like Jimmy Armfield comes along. He has a strong case to be remembered as football’s gentleman…
It’s easy to take one look at the news, or Twitter, or just turn on the TV these days and feel faintly soiled, such is the grubby awfulness of it all. Then, suddenly, like a cleansing balm for the spirit, a mind scrub to erase all horrible thoughts, something will come along to remind you not everything is absolutely awful. On Monday that thing was the 80th birthday of Jimmy Armfield.
There surely cannot be a man in football for whom the phrase ‘good egg’ was more suited. Armfield is the best of eggs, the warmest of souls and the man who cannot fail to inspire a contented grin when you turn on the radio to hear his gentle Lancashire burr waxing delightful on all things football.
Armfield played for 16 years for his beloved Blackpool and captained England in the 1960s, but he’s best known to this generation for his work on the radio, specifically on the BBC for whom he has worked since the late 1970s. For over 35 years he has spread his warm-hearted wisdom to anyone with a radio, a welcome antidote to the rather more shrill voices you can hear in certain other corners of the media.
“You know that if you’re working with Jimmy, you know you’re going to be in safe hands,” says John Murray, one of the 5Live commentators with whom Armfield has worked regularly. “If you’re on your way to commentate on a match and you think ‘I’m not sure if this is going to be a very good game, I’ll have to have a few things in mind to talk about if it’s not very good.’ But if Jimmy’s the summariser then it’s not a problem. Jimmy will know, because he’s as much of a broadcaster as ever a footballer he was, he knows the tricks of the trade as well as anyone, so he’ll help you out.”
One of the nicest things about listening to Armfield is he talks as if he’s vaguely unaware that what he’s saying is being broadcast. As if in a pleasant Lancashire tea room, chatting away over some jam and scones, telling stories that are apposite without seeming like he’s harking back to ‘the good old days.’
But he still knows his job. Whenever Blackpool score in a game elsewhere, the commentator will usually make some reference to Armfield being delighted, to which Jimmy will gently defer, presumably dancing inside but aware that he must be professional and not turn into a cheerleader.
Armfield has his affectations, the most obvious of which is the ‘What I call…’ gambit. Those who have listened to him summarising will be familiar with him describing a fairly routine situation, then explaining it as if he has his own language that nobody else could possibly be familiar with. So, if Wayne Rooney shifts positions during a game, Jimmy might say: “Rooney has moved to, what I like to call, centre-forward, there.” Of course, this is all rather endearing, and only serves to enforce the idea of Armfield as a kindly old boy with his own distinct patterns of speech.
Another recurring Armfield themes is explained by Conor McNamara, another 5Live commentator: “One of my favourite Jimmy lines is: ‘I was right behind that.’ He’ll say it after a goal or a free-kick, and people have often asked me what he means? He’s referring to our position in the stand being in a direct line of sight behind where the shot was struck and through to its target. From being “right behind that” you can see the exact curve of the shot, or know that it’s in before it hits the net.”
In fact, it’s tricky to find anyone with anything approaching a bad word to say about Armfield. Here’s Jacqui Oatley, also of the BBC: “The fact that Jimmy is still sharing his unique insight with a modern audience at the age of 80 is testament to his professionalism and the fact that he’s a joy to work with.” We could go on.
Armfield, as you might expect of a man in his ninth decade, is slowing down a little now, doing roughly a game a month, but he doesn’t give the impression of a man that old. “He’s got a lovely manner about him,” says Murray. “He has a voice that doesn’t particularly age. You know that he’s in advancing years, but I don’t think you’d know that he’s quite as old as he is…he’s got quite a young voice for an old man. Even when he came back after he had throat cancer (in 2007) his voice was pretty much the same as it was before.” After he recovered and returned from his illness, Alex Ferguson sent him a letter that simply read: ‘Welcome back, Jimmy. We have missed you.’
“Obviously Jimmy is our football historian,” says McNamara. “One time we were discussing the Brazilian Garrincha for some reason and Jimmy chipped-in: ‘I marked him. The key was to stand off him – get in too close and he’d dance around you – but if you held back he would still try to push it past you. Then you would have a head start.” This is the kind of sort of first-person insight Jimmy is full of, but he’s very modest and doesn’t like to boast on air.”
Much like David Pleat, another radio summariser and subject of another of these ‘F365 writes lovely and wistful things about…’ features, Armfield manages to strike that balance between being nice and largely uncritical, but never boring, which is partly down to a still-quick wit but, again, largely thanks to his breadth of knowledge.
“If you’re trying to compare, as much as you can, someone like Wayne Rooney and Bobby Charlton or Jimmy Greaves,” says Murray, “Jimmy is the perfect man to ask. And someone like Duncan Edwards – it’s fascinating to hear him talk about the player that he was, because Jimmy saw and played alongside him.”
We’ll give the final word to Pleat, who told the Daily Mail a few years ago: “Jimmy is a first-class human being. Everyone in football knows that. A wonderful man….Jimmy always has the right tone, too. He is critical when necessary but never gratuitous or unfair. Too much media criticism these days seems spiteful. That is not Jimmy’s way. He has superior knowledge of the game but is never condescending. For me, he sets the standards.”