In Good Conscience

Voice of reason, Jimmy Armfield stood for values and more

One of the endearing traits that I, or more especially my wife Jenny, enjoy in Singapore is the civility that the young still show towards their elders.

Courtesy is a strength, not a weakness. And maintaining it throughout a competitive lifetime makes a man - or woman - truly exceptional.

Jimmy Armfield was such a man.

Armfield died on Monday. He was 82 and had battled for more than a decade against Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the cancer that depletes the immune system.

Before that, he played professional football for 17 years, combining the loyalty to his only club, Blackpool, with the ambition and ability to captain England, wherever that took him.

A right-back, he went stride for stride against the greats of his time. They included Spain's lightning-fast Francisco Gento, Brazil's tireless Mario Zagallo, Chile's ferocious Leonel Sanchez. And, because it's not true that the current generation invented fluent positional interchange, there were times when Armfield went toe to toe with the likes of Pele, Eusebio, Alfredo Di Stefano.

What he learnt on the field, he spent the rest of his life passing on. As a manager, drafted in at Leeds United after the handover from Don Revie to Brian Clough tainted the dressing room, Armfield was the healer. Puffing away on his pipe, soothing the egos and managing the fieriness, he coached and coaxed Leeds to a European Cup final in 1975.

As a manager, drafted in at Leeds United after the handover from Don Revie to Brian Clough tainted the dressing room, Armfield was the healer. Soothing the egos and managing the fieriness, he coached and coaxed Leeds to a European Cup final in 1975.

If this seemed at odds with the gentleman (literally) who played the church organ in Blackpool throughout his adult years, the family man never known to boast or binge, he capped it all by later advising the Football Association on the appointments of Terry Venables and then Glenn Hoddle as manager.

And all that while, Armfield was a passive but highly informed summariser on BBC radio. The voice of reason not only on the airwaves, but in the press box where, writing a column for The Daily Express, he informed the likes of me with insights of what it truly felt like being out there on the grass among the greats.

Someone (probably most of us) once said that there was a gleam in Jimmy's eye. That was most of the time when, unlike the media room critics, he had actually been there and done it. And unlike some of the TV couch experts, he never felt the need to castigate the modern generation.

He knew, believe me, the failings of character and the temptations of the football mercenaries. He just didn't feel it proper to pontificate, either into the microphone or in private conversation.

Some newspapers this week drew comparisons between Armfield's life and Alexis Sanchez, whose move from Arsenal to Manchester United went through the day Armfield died.

The one-club man contrasted with the player whose agent conducted an auction between Manchester City and Manchester United until United made him an offer equivalent to S$1 million a week through wages, image rights and bonuses.

Armfield, it's true, played in the era of the maximum weekly wage of £20 (now worth S$37.10) during the season - dropping to £14 in the "off season".

Another era, a bygone age. But Armfield, a Blackpool loyalist known as "Gentleman Jim", did once hear that Matt Busby wanted him at United. The Blackpool board considered it, and informed Armfield he was going nowhere. And that was that.

This week's comparisons did not end with captive employment. Armfield's family car was an £854 Hillman Minx. One of Sanchez's vehicles is a £150,000 Bentley Continental GT.

But back in the 1950s and 1960s, Di Stefano, born in Argentina, played for Real Madrid, acquired dual nationality and then represented Spain. Mercenaries are not new.

"All things change," Armfield observed. "And invariably it has been for the better. And yet, I believe I may have lived at the best time."

Bobby Charlton bade farewell to Jimmy this week. "As an opponent, team-mate and friend, he was without a doubt one of the most honest and genuine gentlemen I had the good fortune to meet."

And so say all of us.

A bronze statue of James Christopher Armfield stands outside Blackpool's Bloomfield Road stadium. It is 2.47m. Not half tall enough for the values he represented.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2018, with the headline 'Voice of reason, Armfield stood for values and more'. Print Edition | Subscribe