When Jimmy Armfield died in 2018 the world of football mourned one of its true stalwarts and gentlemen while the people of Blackpool, Armfieldâ€™s adopted town, especially felt the loss.
Awarded a CBE in 2010 for his services to the community, Armfield enjoyed a sixty-year plus romance with the game in which he left his mark on so many, firstly as a player, then a manager and finally, for more than three decades, a journalist and match-day commentator and summariser. It was truly a blessed life well lived.
Born in 1935 in the town of Denton, Lancashire, as an infant Armfield moved with his family to the northwest coastal town of Blackpool where he was to live for practically the rest of his life, and where he would become so revered throughout his career.
A ferocious yet fair right-back, Armfield was spotted by the local club and signed professional forms in 1951, making his league debut three years later against Portsmouth. It was the start of a career that would lead to 627 club appearances – all for Blackpool – over the next 17 years.
The Blackpool side that Armfield made his breakthrough in was a decent vintage that had recently appeared in three post-war FA Cup Finals – the most famous being the â€˜Matthews Finalâ€™ of 1953 in which Bolton Wanderers were defeated by a 4-3 scoreline. Hence, Armfieldâ€™s career would be played out in its entirety in the First Division, save for three years following Blackpoolâ€™s relegation in 1967.
Quickly gaining a reputation for dependability, Armfield quickly became a regular in the first eleven at Bloomfield Road and his steady calming influence came to the attention of no less a figure than Matt Busby at (relatively) nearby Manchester United. Busby approached the Blackpool manager at the time, Joe Smith, about the possibility of taking the young Armfield to Old Trafford in 1957, only to be firmly rebuffed by Smith and the Blackpool directors. In those pre freedom of contract days, the unfortunate Armfield held the power to do little other than rue his missed opportunity.
A player whose positional sense, reading of the game, and finely-tuned tackling were the mainstays of his performances and indeed career, the one attribute seemingly missing from Armfieldâ€™s locker was the capability to get forward and contribute at the other end of the pitch. A final return of less than 1% was achieved in this area with only six goals being netted throughout his career.
No matter, Armfield continued to shine for Blackpool, and his international career began in 1956 when he won the first of nine England U-23 caps. In 1959 he was called up to play for England for the first time by manager Walter Winterbottom. Making his debut in front of 120,000 spectators at the Maracana Stadium was never going to be easy, especially as he was asked by Winterbottom to play at left-back, Up against the excellent Brazilian right-winger Julinho, Armfield could do little to prevent Englandâ€™s 2-0 ultimate defeat at the hands of Brazil.
Shaking off this disappointment, Armfield kept his place for the rest of that end-of-season tour and would go on to be an England regular for the next seven seasons. It was during this period that Armfield became to be recognised as one of the best right-backs in world football – it was a heady accolade but it was one that he well-deserved with sterling performances coming against the cream of the worldâ€™s opposition.
In 1962, England qualified for the World Cup in Chile, and although deemed to be in with an outside chance of taking home the trophy, the Three Lions were not amongst the favourites. A tough group ended with England winning one, drawing one and losing one, but managing to qualify as group runners-up to Hungary and ahead of Argentina on goal average, so into the quarter-finals against Brazil. It was here that Armfield played one of the best games of his career but in the end, was helpless to prevent England from being defeated by a 3-1 scoreline.
His performances in the four games played, despite England conceding a total of six goals, was enough for him to be voted â€œthe best right-back in the worldâ€. At the same time, he was also voted â€œbest right-back in Europeâ€ between 1962 and 1964.
As the Blackpool board was unwilling to listen to offers for Armfield, and there were little or no prospects of European football with the Seasiders, Armfield was only able to display his talents on an international stage with England but as he did so, so did his stock rise.
From 1959 to 1964 he was an undisputed first-choice name on the team sheet whenever England played, but then right at the end of the 1963-64 domestic season, he was to suffer a career-altering injury. Playing in Blackpoolâ€™s last match of the season, he was to suffer a groin injury that would rule him out of Englandâ€™s end of season matches and close season tour. This opened the door for Fulhamâ€™s George Cohen to stake a place in the team and his performances were such that there was no way back for Armfield.
Although he was to stay in and around the squad for the next two years up to and including the 1966 World Cup on home soil, Armfield was never again first-choice for England. The last of 43 caps for his country came against Finland in a warm-up game for the 1966 tournament. As a non-playing squad member, Armfield did not receive a medal in 1966 and it took another 43 years before FIFA finally acceded to FA pressure and awarded them to the 11 England players not on the field that day.
Armfieldâ€™s club career continued at Blackpool and despite relegation the next season, he would stay at Bloomfield Road until he finally retired at the end of the 1970-71 season. His final game was at home to Manchester United in front of 30,000 spectators in what would be Blackpoolâ€™s last top-flight game for almost forty years.
After retiring from playing, Jimmy Armfield moved straight into management at nearby Bolton Wanderers, then in the Third Division. The Trotters were promoted as champions of the third flight in 1972-73, and so Armfield found himself back at Bloomfield Road the following season for a league match that unfortunately has gone down in infamy. A young Blackpool fan was stabbed to death at half-time in the match against Bolton, becoming the first supporter to be murdered in an English league ground. Given his affinity with both clubs, Armfield was heartbroken.
In the summer of 1974, Don Revie left his post at League Champions, Leeds United, for the England hot seat and was controversially replaced at Elland Road by Brian Clough. As is well-documented, Cloughâ€™s time in charge of Billy Bremner, Johnny Giles, et al, was an unmitigated disaster and so the Leeds board were soon looking for a replacement.
Once more overlooking the claims of Bremner or Giles to take on the role of player-manager, the Leeds board perhaps slightly surprisingly plumped for Armfield, still only 38 at the time and with just three yearsâ€™ management experience behind him, and all of that spent outside the First Division.
If he was daunted by the prospect of taking over the reigning league champions in their time of turmoil, Armfield showed no obvious signs and instead set about steadying the ship. Although the league season was pretty much already a write-off, progress was made in Leedsâ€™ pursuit of the Holy Grail, the European Cup. The semi-finals were reached with little fuss but then United were paired with Catalan giants, Barcelona. This was probably Armfieldâ€™s finest moment as a manager as the Spanish champions were outwitted by a 3-2 aggregate score and so a Paris showdown with Bayern Munich beckoned.
The events at the Parc des Princes stadium on that balmy May evening in 1975 are indelibly etched into the consciousness of every Leeds United fan. Despite having most of the play, Leeds fell victim to some of the most controversial refereeing decisions of all time and eventually succumbed to a 2-0 defeat.
The unfortunate reactions of some of their following meant that Leeds were subsequently banned from Europe for two seasons and so Armfield never again got a chance to pit his tactical prowess in the international arena.
Trying to rebuild an ageing side at Elland Road, Armfield had some success in the form of near misses in the FA Cup and League Cup with the semi-finals reached in both but was ultimately, and rather harshly, dismissed in the summer of 1978 to make way for Jock Steinâ€™s arrival from Celtic.
After the manner of his dismissal from Leeds, Armfield decided not to return to club management and instead embarked upon a third career within football, this time in the media. Writing as a journalist for the Daily Express for over a decade, Armfield also worked extensively on BBC radio as a match summariser. It was his dulcet tones and clear footballing intelligence that endured him to millions of listeners each week. Never one to seek controversy or make outlandish criticisms, Armfield was for many years one of the most popular voices to be heard in football.
Through his approachability and his contacts in the game, Jimmy Armfield was the perfect person to act as a foil for the FA when they went searching for a successor to Graham Taylor following failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Armfield set about undertaking research and talked to a host of names in the game before reporting back to the FA that Terry Venables was the preferred choice and would be most suitable for the position.
When the post fell vacant again barely two years later due to Venables getting stroppy with the FAâ€™s refusal to renegotiate the agreed terms of his contract prior to Euro â€˜96, Armfield repeated the process and this time advised the FA to go for Glenn Hoddle.
In retirement, Jimmy Armfield was content to watch his beloved Blackpool play and Bloomfield Road sports both The Jimmy Armfield Stand and a nine-foot statue of the man outside the main entrance.