I was saddened to hear of the death of Jimmy Armfield yesterday, aged 82. The timeless qualities of his observations on BBC Radio Five had been a constant for fans over the last 40 years. And like many, I am sure, I’d been lulled into believing that this most listenable of football men, would simply go on forever.
And that longevity is no mean achievement in a game where you’re a long time dead once the floodlights fade for the final time on a football career, played even at the highest level.
Tony Collins, England’s first black manager and the man dubbed Football’s Master Spy for his scouting working under Don Revie for Leeds and England and Ron Atkinson and Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United was a contemporary of Jimmy Armfield and will clearly mourn his loss. He said: “Another good man has left us, I first met Jimmy Armfield when I was manager of Rochdale and he wanted to buy Reg Jenkins. Sorry Jimmy he wasn’t for sale! Later in life I was his Chief Scout at Leeds United FC. RIP. He was a great and lovely bloke.”
The highlights reel shows that Jimmy Armfield was a one-club man who made 569 appearances for Blackpool between 1954 and 1971. He played 43 time for England, playing at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, captaining his country 15 times. Armfield was a member of the squad in 1966 but did not play in the tournament. He managed Bolton and Leeds, taking the latter to the 1975 European Cup final.
What the bare facts don’t detail however is the human story lived at the heart of the game. There’s the friendship with Duncan Edwards, and a twist of fate that might have seen Armfield on that Munich runway in 1958.
It doesn’t record Jimmy Armfield’s creation of the modern overlapping fullback role as a means to make the most of his illustrious teammate Sir Stanley Matthews, who was regularly double marked in games.
It doesn’t record the injury that robbed him of a likely place in the 1966 World Cup Final.
Nor does it mention the controversy that robbed his Leeds United side of a European Cup title, once he’d steadied the ship at Elland Road after Brian Clough’s 44 tumultuous days in charge.
And it doesn’t show Armfield’s pivotal role in the appointments of Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle as England managers in the 1990s.
Writing in The Telegraph, Sir Alex Ferguson’s biographer Paul Hayward says: “The voice that millions will remember mainly from BBC radio was the sound of a time when the personalities of great footballers were formed by more than wealth and celebrity. With a greater span of life experiences – many forced on them – Armfield’s generation seemed more sure of who they were, or what they had come from, and that inner certainty furnished him with a voice that was calm and composed.”
But unlike many fans of his generation Armfield was never a prisoner of nostalgia.
Like all true football people he would not have lamented leaving behind the mudbath pitches and crumbling, dangerous stadiums. He would not have mourned the passing of the era of bad, violent tackling, ‘take an injection’ stoicism and crippled players cast onto the scrapheap at 32 with no means to support themselves or their families.
Jimmy Armfield was a force for good. His ability to empathise as events unfolded before him was a reminder that a sober, more sensible view inevitably resists the pull of black and white extremes, highs and lows, wins and losses, debits and credits, on the road to a deeper truth.
As such, Jimmy Armfield’s death leaves a void in the world of broadcasting in thrall to easy polemic and cheap thrills presentation.
Jim Beglin, David Pleat and Gerry Armstrong are notable exceptions to the rule but other solid co-commentators like Russell Osman on Eurosport and Stewart Robson (BT Sport’s Italian coverage) are notable for their not breaking through to a wider audience. And that is a pity. There is no obvious heir apparent for Jimmy Armfield.
The reality is that football media is a space that no longer does nuanced opinion very well. Witness the current vogue for controversialists such as Chris Sutton and Robbie Savage.
In mitigation, the broadcasters are on a hiding to nothing trying to serve a constituency broad enough to want pop video goals montages at one extreme and on-point tactical analysis at the other.
Nonetheless, I think it starts with the fans. They get the level of analysis that their tastes require precisely because the print and broadcast media are nothing if not very commercially attuned to ‘what sells’. And most fans want pub talk, soundbites and easy answers based on caricature heroes and villains.
Then there’s the issue of access and career protection. You can’t really say what you truly think as a pundit if you have skin in the game such as a network of friends and former and future colleagues embedded at clubs. You are immediately compromised. And that distance, in terms of age, time and experience, is what made an independent but expert Jimmy Armfield an invaluable counterpoint to the norm.
It is also just one of the many reasons why Jimmy Armfield’s presence in the commentary box will be sorely missed by anyone that craves a deeper understanding of the game.