Jimmy Armfield*. Placed together in that order, they are two of my favourite words in the English language. There have been better footballers and managers, though he wasn’t bad himself, acclaimed during the 1962 World Cup in Chile as “the best right-back in the world” and later doing good work in charge of Bolton and Leeds. There have been better sports commentators. But he has a depth of knowledge and utterly dependable expressive qualities that most of them must envy. We desperately hope the result from the Stadium of Light tomorrow comes as a bitter disappointment to him – a robust comeback after the also-ran display at Old Trafford is a must – but we salute Jimmy Armfield all the same and offer our warmest best wishes to a wonderful voice of the game who played his entire Football League career for one club: tomorrow’s opponents Blackpool …
Salut! Sunderland: What a fabulous time for Blackpool!
Well, the fabulous time really was Wembley. We thought last season was case of trying to stay in the Championship and then suddenly we had this run at the end of the season and ended up in the playoffs and thought “Blimey! they’ve got there. How did we manage that?” And then won it: how did we ever do that that?
Then we thought “OK it will probably turn round” and we all prayed about the first game at Wigan – and ended up winning 4-0.
How has the decent start been achieved?
The players have surprised us all – and I might say those around the club, It’s as simple as that. Just look at the salaries. They don’t match up if added together to just one player at certain other clubs.
And what does it mean for football?
I think it gives hope to the smaller clubs in the Championship that one day they might do the same. It’s been like a fairytale but what it has done is to give hope to a lot of what I call the town clubs a bit like Blackpool. Don’t forget we were in the lower divisions for nearly 30 years.
Well I can just about remember when you weren’t down there – when you were playing yourself.
Yes. In my time, of the 19 years I played for Blackpool, only two were in the old Second Division.
When the season started in August, what were your minimum and maximum expectations for Blackpool?
My minimum expectation was that we’d be in trouble. The maximum was fourth bottom. We just didn’t realise what was possible. There is still a long way to go, the club is under no illusions about that as you can tell from the managers quotes each week in the local paper. You only have to get some injuries or suspensions for things to go wrong. But yes, I’d be thrilled to bits with fourth bottom.
You know football inside out so name this season’s top four in order.
At the top, it’ll be between London and Manchester. But as far as the bottom three are concerned, it really is just too hard to say. When you look at the league this season, there are still any of 10 clubs that could go down. It’s the first time the Premier has been squeezed together so tightly. At the top, all our main teams are through to the next stage in Europe; they are making all the money and it’s a bit of reach of the rest.
What thoughts do you have on Sunderland AFC?
I played at Roker Park a few times, not at the new place of course. I used to like Roker, it was a good ground. the first time I played there, it was a 0-0 draw but I remember it because Charlie Fleming got a penalty in the last minute. Len Shackleton** said he would take it, there was a bit of an argument but Charlie insisted. “You’ll never score,” Shack told him and Charlie hit it five yards over the bar. I saw Len just before he died: he’d been a real character and still was. I remember seeing him knocking the ball so it came back to him off the corner flag, and – when he was a young player at Bradford – sitting down on the ball during a match.
Jimmy also recalled – via an anecdote from the late broadcaster Brian Redhead – the day in 1951 that Shack did take a penalty, against Manchester City, with a run-up from the halfway line. When he reached the spot, he just stopped, but not before deceiving the City keeper Frank Swift into making a desperate dive. Shack simply turned his back to goal and backheeled the ball into the opposite corner, impressing Swift so much that the keeper chased after him to add his own congratulations, grabbing Shack’s head in his huge hands and planting a kiss on it.
Salut! Sunderland So did you ever have the chance to go and play for Sunderland?
No fear. It’s cold enough in Blackpool thank you very much!
We ask everyone this question, Jimmy: is it time to abandon high-minded ideas about cheating – diving, feigning injury, trying to get opposing players booked or sent off – and accept it as part of the modern game? Or do we keep trying to stamp it out?
No, I think we should be concerned about anything that is not in the rules. I am forever telling young players: “If you’re going to be a good player, you must play to the rules as best you can.” I know professional footballers are in it for the money. I understand that. But we should stand on the side of right. It is not always easy to tell if someone is feigning injury or genuinely been tripped, and I have sympathy for referees, the game is much quicker than when I played so it’s that much harder.
Will you be at our game/s (the game at the SoL on Dec 28 is followed by the return at Bloomfield Road on Jan 22)? What will be the score?
I don’t get much to away games but I might be at the home fixture. Blackpool are second favourites every game, no matter who they’re playing. As for how it will go, we’ll just have to find out. I get it wrong whenever I do try and would be a millionaire if I really could predict scores.
What did you make of the Fifa vote to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and not England?
Oh, I don’t know much about that. I’m more interested in which teams qualify and who we play, more interested in the football than the venue. And I’d love to see our team do better. There are more English players now in the Premier League: I like young Henderson he’s OK and he’s only a young lad. And Lee Cattermole, he’ll be all right when he gets his head on.
Looking back , what kind of life has football given you?
Wonderful. The best pay I ever got was £70 a week but the game has been good to me, all the connections I’ve made, the life I’ve had. I gave up university to make it my career and feel very privileged that it worked out.
OK, is that enough, mate?
More than enough, Jimmy, even if we might also have asked about how you get on with other BBC football pundits and commentators, Stanley Matthews and the secrets of church organ playing. Top man for doing it – and for doing it so well. More plaudits can be seen by clicking here.
* Wikipedia on Jimmy Armfield:
James Christopher “Jimmy” Armfield, CBE, DL (born 21 September 1935 in Denton, Lancashire) is an English former professional football player and manager who currently works as a football pundit for BBC Radio Five Live. He played the whole of his Football League career at Blackpool, usually at right back. Between 1954 and 1971 he played 627 games in all competitions, scored six goals, and spent a decade as the club’s captain. He also captained the England national team fifteen times.
** Hear Jimmy’s superb documentary on Shack by clicking on this BBC link
Interview: Colin Randall