In Tribute: Conor McNamara on Jimmy Armfield

Jimmy Armfield

In 2018, football lost a true statesman of the game in Jimmy Armfield. A former England captain, Jimmy had an incredible career appearing for Blackpool 627 times, taking Leeds United to the European Cup Final as manager, and then becoming a revered football journalist and broadcaster.

Here, two years after he left us, broadcaster Conor McNamara remembers his friend and BBC colleague - sharing his memories of Jimmy…

Conor McNamara

BBC colleagues Conor McNamara and Jimmy Armfield

I first started working with Jimmy at the BBC around 2002. I was a young, Irish kid coming over, and he was an experienced, established veteran, and someone you might not have expected to have much patience for me learning my way in the trade, but he was such a fantastic guy to work with. He carried himself so respectfully, a proper old school gentleman. My wife met him, and when I told her afterwards that he had captained England and managed Leeds United, she couldn’t believe it! He didn’t show off his obvious talent and the great moments he’d had in his life. He was just so humble about the whole thing.  

One time I was commentating on a game, and before it started, I had a lot of nervous energy. I wasn’t aware I was doing it, but I kept pounding my leg up and down as I was talking, trying to gear myself up for an exciting match.  Jimmy would usually be beside me writing and because we both had live microphones in front of us, he couldn’t say anything, so he just very gently put his hand on my knee as if to say ‘It’s ok, calm down and relax’. It was a nice gesture and that was just the way he was. Jimmy had this lovely manner about him like ‘Don’t worry, you’re cool. You’ve got this, take it easy’. Those kinds of things I’ll always remember. Undoubtedly his character made people want to work with him, he really was a great guy.

There aren’t many players from Jimmy’s era left working in the media now, and he never had an ‘Oh, things were better in my day’ attitude. He appreciated the world had changed and things were different. You never heard Jimmy say, ‘No, this isn’t for me because it’s too modern’, he actually moved with the times well. There is that bit of nostalgia in football where we all think the pitches were greener and the football was better, but he never had that boastful attitude. Especially in the way he appraised modern football, players and managers - he would give them respect. He would reference the greats of the past, but he appreciated that these guys are greats of this era, and his peers were greats of their era. 

Jimmy was a very measured gentleman who spoke kindly about people. He wasn’t afraid to be constructively critical or analytical of people, but he would never be mean or have a pop at someone just to get a reaction. Radio is interesting because audiences feel like they know the person quite well, and the commentary team becomes the eyes and ears of those listeners inside the stadium. You become the listeners’ friend, and Jimmy was exactly that - he sounded like your wise uncle who was at the game and was telling you about it. Therefore I think individual listeners felt a closeness to him that they didn’t feel with others.

BBC colleagues  Jimmy Armfield and Conor McNamara

Football is missing his presence, but he really is remembered. Very seldom will a month go by without somebody making a reference to Jimmy, especially among my colleagues you’ll regularly hear, ‘As Jimmy used to say, I was right behind that’. His parlance has seeped into the vernacular of football; the expressions he used have now become generic terms, and so often wherever you go people ask about him, or speak about him or praise him. Gentleman Jimmy was the name people had for him, and for me, that says absolutely everything.