Jimmy Armfield - a look back on the life of the Blackpool FC legend
- Credit: PA
Blackpool legend Jimmy Armfield spoke to Lancashire Life in 2008 about fighting cancer, being the county’s busiest pensioner and autograph etiquette. Interview by Paul Mackenzie.
‘It’s the window cleaner, love, he wonders if you wouldn’t mind signing this magazine.’ Jimmy Armfield stands up, takes the magazine from his wife and pats his pockets as he wanders across to the dining table. When he finds no pen I offer him my Lancashire Life issue ballpoint but he refuses, politely but firmly: ‘Those pens are no good for signing on this kind of paper.’ He is clearly a man who knows a thing or two about signing autographs.
And well he might be. In the 54 years since he made his Blackpool debut he has scribbled his name in more autograph books than most people have owned biros.
Magazine duly signed (with a black marker pen from his briefcase) we return to the living room of his neat but far from grand Blackpool home and Jimmy picks up where we left off, at a recent awards dinner in London.
‘I was given two awards, one from the PFA and one from the Football League. I don’t think anyone has done the double before so that was very nice of them. They must think I’m going to pop my clogs.’
He has a nice line in modest self-deprecation and stark truths and although he can joke about his own demise now, it was no laughing matter 18 months ago when he was battling cancer.
A non-Hodgkins lymphoma on his tonsils caused him to lose his hair, his strength and stones in weight, but not his determination. ‘I’ve always had an air of confidence about it, even though a couple of people who were with me were not so fortunate but it has been a bit of a long haul.
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‘A doctor told me early on that the condition gets worse before you get better and he was right. I’m quite well now compared to how I was a year ago. It took a year out of my life, but I put it down as an experience.’
The condition has left him thinner but his most distinctive feature these days is his voice, and that is every bit as recognisable as ever. Jim is known to millions born too late to see any of his 620-odd games for Blackpool or his 43 appearances for England as a football commentator on Radio Five.
His voice, full of thoughtful Lancastrian tones, is redolent of Saturday afternoons on the terraces; close your eyes and you can almost smell the Bovril. But it wobbles ever so slightly when he talks of the emotional impact of his condition.
More than 3,000 people sent messages via the BBC and Blackpool Football Club wishing Jim a speedy recovery. It was a response he hadn’t been prepared for. ‘Very humbling,’ he says. ‘Very humbling.’
After months of intensive treatment at hospitals in Blackpool and Preston – he refused to go private and is full of praise for the NHS – he made his first public appearance at a Blackpool home game where he was asked to draw the half time raffle.
‘When people saw me walk out on to the pitch the applause started. It went on for about five minutes and it was rather emotional,’ he says between sips of tea.
‘I wasn’t going to say anything but after all that I thought I ought to, so I took the microphone and thanked them and said I hadn’t been out for about 10 months but that Bloomfield Road seemed like a good place to start. The applause started again. In the end they had to delay the second half by about five minutes.’
He’s been back on the mic regularly since then and will begin his 31st season on the radio when the new season kicks off this month, but this summer’s European Championships was the first major tournament he’s missed for about 25 years.
The Armfield family moved to Blackpool when Jimmy was six. He excelled at school, academically and on the sports field, although at that age his game was not football but rugby. Even so his PE master at Arnold School invited him to play in a trial game at Bloomfield Road. ‘I played and my team won 4-1. I scored all four. They invited me back and it all went from there.’
His academic and sporting successes meant he had to choose between football and university – he had been accepted at Liverpool and Loughborough – but his mind was made up during his National Service.
‘I played for my regimental team and eventually the British Army Team. I was captain and we had Duncan Edwards, Eddie Coleman, Stan Anderson, Maurice Setters, Bill Foulkes. I’ve missed some out, but that was quite a team.’
University couldn’t compete. Jim returned home from camp at weekends, when he could, to play for Blackpool. He made his debut in 1954 and spent his whole playing career there and was club captain for a decade but his 17 years at the club were not sprinkled with success. Promotion to the top flight in 1969/70 gave him his only winners’ medal but trophy laden teams were watching.
Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United all tried to sign him but he adds: ‘I was told about the interest but the club held all the cards and they wouldn’t let me go. That was all there was to it.’
His last game for Blackpool came in May 1971 and was the club’s last match in the top division, a 1-1 draw with Manchester United.
As a manager he had impressive spells in charge of Bolton and Leeds but when he was sacked in 1978 he stepped away from the game. ‘There was interest from Leicester and Newcastle but I didn’t want to be moving about the country. I’ve got no regrets about leaving football. I’ve had a lot of things that people who stay in football don’t have. I think I got out at the right time for myself.’
During his playing days he had trained as a journalist at the Gazette in Blackpool and when he left Leeds he was asked to work for the Daily Express. ‘I did some television work about two or three times but I didn’t like what I saw of myself and then came an offer to do some radio work. I did a couple of matches for them and I’m still doing it.’
It’s far from the only thing he’s doing, though. Aside from playing the organ at St Peter’s Church and preening the garden that is his pride and joy, the grandfather-of-four is also chairman of the Lancashire Partnership Against Crime and a governor at his old school, Arnold.
‘I’m also on the Blackburn Cathedral Council, I’m president of Lancashire Outward Bound, and of Age Concern for Blackpool and the area, I’m a Fellow of the University of Central Lancashire and I’m the FA’s technical consultant.
‘A lot of it is what they call community work and a pleasure really. I’m better having something to do. Anne and I can’t watch anything that continues on television, soaps or any series, because we wouldn’t see the next one.’
He was also High Sheriff of Lancashire in 2005/06 and the ceremonial shield hangs in his hallway which it shares with a collection of footballing memorabilia, the certificates for his OBE and the freedom of his home town.
‘It was a great honour to be asked to be the High Sheriff. I was the first footballer to be asked to hold the position and I’m pretty sure I was probably the oldest person to start doing the job. Now I’m the only living Freeman of Blackpool. I’ve been very lucky.’