I had the very great fortune to get to know Jimmy quite well. He was still making huge television audiences laugh because, “it’s a funny ol’ game”, and beneath the jester, was a philosophical man, who knew that that phrase applied to life as much as it pertained to football.
I knew him because I played, first at Maldon Town, and later at Witham Town, with his sons Danny and Andy. Danny played the game like a second-generation tribute act to his father. Slight of build, clinical finisher and often laconic commentator on what was going on around him. He was good enough to play in the football league at Cambridge and Southend, but it never quite happened for him.
Andy was a marauding full back, with his father’s zest for life. He was irrepressible and bubbly and occasionally confrontational. He was one of those players that everyone else wants in the side. Although Jimmy was riding high with his broadcasting career he made time to watch his sons, and therefore he saw me play. Despite my many shortcomings he was always warm in praise for me and generous in advice.
In one evening game I played, Danny was horribly injured by a malicious tackle from a thuggish defender. He was not able to play again, but he became the manager of our Witham team. My memory is occasionally confused, but I think that was the time that Jimmy started to watch more often. I think he hoped Danny might still find a way into the game. The club had some modest sponsorship and I am sure it was Jimmy who decided we would be improved by a new strip.
We started to wear the red and black stripes with which he had been adorned in his AC Milan days. We were Essex’s Rossoneri. Jimmy thought that we would be more intimidating wearing such a strip. We did quite well too. Our finest run in the FA Cup came in that strip, before losing at Dartford, a couple of rounds before we could draw a league club.
I did see Jimmy play, but very little. My sense of him comes from old film. He slips past bemused defenders with a deft flick of his hips and suddenly is nonchalantly sidefooting the ball home. Chelsea and Tottenham fans will claim him as their own, given his great feats in their colours. For me, as a Hammer, we saw a player, who knew he had peaked, but could demonstrate, in flashes how high that peak had been. His scoring exploits for the national side only serve to remind us of the crushing disappointment that 1966 turned out to be for him.
His playing pomp was my childhood, so I was a Jimmy fan mainly because of his broadcasting. The real thrill to me was that he was completely unchanged off camera as in front of it. To have one of England’s finest sportsmen throw an arm around your shoulder and tell you things he had liked about your game, after another match when I had failed to deliver the ball into Danny’s path from my right-wing role, was to be swept into a special relationship. Occasionally, I thought he was helping me more with my game than he was supporting Danny or Andy. He had that way of making you feel special, which for me, meant letting me believe I was a good enough player.
My deepest condolences to Danny, Andy and the rest of the family. I know that the last few years have been difficult as Jimmy’s health deteriorated and I hope my old team-mates will get great comfort from what I am sure will be many fabulous testimonials and thoughtful obituaries. I think, for me, he was one of my very first relationships with fame and stardom, and he was able to show that whatever goals (in all senses of that word) had been achieved, the really important thing was how you treated people. And Jimmy treated people like me as family. RIP.