'˜We have lost the man everyone in the town looked up to. We'll never see his likes again'
Gazette columnist Steve Canavan recalls how he was tutored by the legend that is Jimmy Armfield with a warmth befitting a man like no other.
Nowhere will the passing of Jimmy Armfield, great footballer, even greater human being, be felt more keenly than in Blackpool.
Armfield was admired, respected and well-liked everywhere.
In Blackpool, he was loved and a legend.
You know the facts. A one-club man, spending his entire playing career at Bloomfield Road. 1954 to 1971.
627 games. In retirement, not for him a mansion in Alderley Edge with security cameras and electric gates to keep the public out. Jimmy was more likely to invite the public in for a brew and a biscuit.
He settled in South Shore with his wife, Anne, and family, played the organ at a nearby church, and threw himself into life locally.
There’s no point listing all he did – it would take too long.
Armfield was a man to whom community mattered. He felt a responsibility towards the town which had put him on the map.
As a manager he was offered jobs further afield, two in London. He turned down both because he loved family life by the seaside.
I remember speaking to Armfield after he’d been chosen by the Football Association to present the 2012 FA Cup, when Chelsea beat Liverpool.
“It will be nice to watch it as guest of honour and present the trophy,” he said, “then get in the car and join the traffic back to Blackpool.”
If ever a response summed Armfield up, that was it. He could have boasted, waffled about his own self-worth – instead he referenced the traffic, a nod to the fact that he felt he was no better than the rest of us, suffering the same petty everyday problems.
A dozen years back, I was tasked with putting together a Gazette supplement for Armfield’s 70th birthday.
The centrepiece was a big interview with the man himself and so I arranged to go to his house. I didn’t go through an agent, I rang Armfield on his home number. “You were lucky to get me, “ he said. “I’ve just had Glenn Hoddle on. Come whenever you like. Kettle will be boiling.”
I drove there expecting to find he lived in some huge, fancy abode. After all, this is a man who captained his country, got voted best player at the 1962 World Cup, and was in the squad for England’s most famous footballing moment – the World Cup triumph of ’66.
His house turned out to be so unassuming that I drove past it the first time and had to do a U-turn. An unassuming house for an unassuming individual.
I was nervous for that interview. I was in my 20s at the start of my career – to me Armfield was a god.
He was as good on the radio as he had been on the pitch, a sporting and media great.
I was expecting him to talk down to me, probably be a bit arrogant, and certainly a little aloof and distant. After all, I was a nobody who worked for a regional newspaper, he was a man who had achieved it all.
It was, therefore, slightly astonishing to discover that I couldn’t have been made more welcome had I been a family member.
Within minutes of being shown to a neat and tidy conservatory, where Jim was sitting in an armchair browsing the papers, Mrs Armfield bought a pot of tea into the lounge and two slices of cake. Jimmy didn’t mention anything about his own achievements – instead he spent the next quarter of an hour asking about my life and where I came from, listening intently and picking up on what I said. Maybe it was because he used to be a newspaper man himself, more likely because he was just a damn decent bloke.
And that’s the thing.
When you’ve captained England and been in the public eye for more than half a century, there’s a grave danger you might turn into an egocentric know-all, obsessed with only yourself and your own importance.
But Jimmy was the polar opposite. He wasn’t a celebrity, he was one of us.
Maybe that came from staying in Blackpool, remaining grounded, somehow managing to be an everyday man. Maybe if he’d moved to London and hung around with the celebrity crowd, he’d have been a different person.
But that wasn’t his thing. He remained in touch with every one of his former team-mates at Blackpool and was fiercely proud and loyal of them. He was their unofficial spokesman and everyone with whom he shared a dressing room looked up to him.
Part of his greatness was that he remained relevant. Some older folk get stuck in the past, adopting that slightly bitter ‘it was better in my day’ mantra.
Jimmy was so different. He embraced change and could converse with anyone of any age, any profession.
But he was most at ease when discussing his beloved football, the passion that underpinned his life from his days on the playing fields of Arnold School to striding out at Wembley.
When Blackpool were winning promotion to the Premier League under Ian Holloway, Armfield often used to turn up unannounced at the training ground for a chat with the manager.
Holloway, in truth, sometimes got irked by this. But within minutes of arriving, Armfield would have the Pool boss under his spell, pointing out areas of the team that could be improved and going through anything he hadn’t approved of in the previous match.
Had anyone else said this, they’d have received short shrift and been hurled through the exit door.
Holloway – not exactly a man to hide his light under a bushel – sat and nodded like a schoolboy, listened, and took it all in.
Armfield had that knack of commanding respect for he talked sense, and anyway, who could question a man who had already been there and done it?
A colleague once told me that whenever a BBC broadcaster was making their first appearance on air, they’d be paired with Jimmy, not just so he could pass on his wisdom but because of his ability to make people feel at ease.
I worked for a while as a summariser on Radio Lancashire and Jimmy sometimes rang on a Monday. “I was listening on Saturday,” he’d say (Jimmy Armfield listening to me – wow!).
“You were very good, but when that goal went in, you just needed to slow down a little. Oh, and sometimes get to the point a bit quicker when you’re describing things, make what you say a bit sharper.”
This was never said in a condescending or critical way, he was trying to help – and he did. Imagine a former England captain taking the trouble to do that? I stand to be corrected but I’m not sure David Beckham would ring a young reporter to give them encouragement and friendly words of guidance.
The outpouring of emotion and grief on social media after Armfield’s death was announced yesterday, not just from those in Blackpool but throughout the UK and beyond, said it all.
Often when someone in the public eye dies, platitudes are hurled around without thought and sincerity, especially in this era of Twitter and Facebook. It’s sometimes as if those paying tribute are going through the motions.
But I didn’t read or watch one tribute to Jim that wasn’t heartfelt and meant.
There are many who earn and command respect for all that they do in their lives, but only a select few are truly loved and cherished. Jimmy was, because of the way he was – an incredibly decent human being.
He was a terrific bloke, who led an remarkable life and did many great things. But throughout it all he remained down-to-earth, approachable, grounded, good-humoured, and one of us.
Blackpool has lost its father-figure, the man everyone in town looked up to, and it’s hard to imagine we will ever see his likes again.
RIP Jimmy Armfield. Gone but never forgotten.