Rob Atkinson: A sad farewell to ‘Gentleman Jim’

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In late 1974, reigning league champions Leeds United were in unaccustomed turmoil after more than a decade of sustained success.

They had lost their talismanic manager Don Revie to the lure of the England job, and had made a disastrous start to the defence of their title under the abrasive leadership of Brian Clough.

Now, after only 44 days, Clough was out – and crisis was not too strong a word for the situation United found themselves in, rudderless and well down the league. A calming influence was needed after the maelstrom of Clough’s brief tenure; a safe pair of hands, someone to take stock and move forward steadily.

Enter Jimmy Armfield, the former Blackpool and England defender who had overseen the promotion of Bolton Wanderers from the third division. Urbane and softly spoken, Jimmy was the antithesis of the brash and confrontational Clough.

Here was a man who promised evolution, not revolution, as United’s aging but still effective squad looked to salvage what they could after a poor start to the campaign. Confidence was low, but the champions responded to Armfield’s encouragement with a gradual recovery.

One of Jimmy’s first acts was to address his collection of international stars, getting them to look around the room at each other, then asking: “So what are you lot doing near the bottom of the first division?” It was a good question, and the players found themselves able to give their answer on the field, particularly in European combat.

For a season that had started so awfully to end up in a showpiece European Cup Final in Paris against reigning European Champions Bayern Munich was, in itself, a footballing miracle. But for an appalling injustice in the Parc des Princes stadium, Jimmy Armfield would have become the first Englishman to manage a team to European Cup glory, with Leeds becoming the first English club to win the trophy abroad. Ultimately, those honours fell to Bob Paisley and Liverpool in 1977 but, by common consent, Armfield and Leeds had been robbed two years earlier, as acknowledged by the vast army of Leeds fans who sing “Champions of Europe” to this day.

Jimmy Armfield continued with his methodical approach in the wake of that unfortunate defeat and of the ban on playing in Europe that arose out of United fans’ riotous reaction. It was Armfield’s calm and logical advocacy that got the ban halved; sadly, he had left the club by the time it next qualified for European competition. In the meantime, though, Jimmy got on with the necessary overhaul of the playing staff. The Revie legends were growing older and departing; Armfield introduced the likes of Tony Currie, Brian Flynn, Arthur Graham and Paul Hart, maintaining a squad strength that kept United ticking over as the seventies drew to a close.

Two semi final defeats in 1977 and 1978, in the FA Cup and then the League Cup, did not match the ambitions of the board, who dispensed with Gentleman Jim in the summer of 78. In retrospect, it was a decision that started United’s slow decline to relegation in 1982. Jimmy Armfield, his managerial career over, turned to media work where he became a respected and much loved voice on the BBC, displaying his knowledge of and love for the game over the next few decades.

In his later years, Jimmy courageously faced a long battle against cancer, one he ultimately lost this week, passing away at the age of 82. He was the first Leeds manager of my time supporting the club, and it’s good to know that he always retained a fondness for United and for the city of Leeds where, he said: “They always treated me kindly”. Jimmy was indeed a gentleman - and a proper football man too. He will be greatly missed.

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