Obituary: Jimmy Armfield

09 February 2018


The Rt Revd Geoffrey Pearson writes:

OBITUARIES, in the secular media, of Jimmy Armfield, who died on 22 January, aged 82, have focused on his achievements as a soccer legend. That was an important part of his life, but only a part. He moved to Blackpool at the age of seven, and lived the rest of his life in the town that already has a bronze statue in his honour. He spent his whole career at Blackpool Football Club, playing with the great Stanley Matthews. Captain of England 15 times, after the 1962 World Cup he was recognised as the best right back in the world. Injury kept him out of the 1966 World Cup, although he was an important squad member.

There are many “what ifs” in Jimmy’s story. What if he had gone to Manchester United, who gave up trying to sign him just before the Munich air crash? What if he had not got injured in the lead-up to the World Cup in 1966? What if Leeds, whom he managed, had got the rub of the green in the European Cup Final? But Jimmy never did “what ifs”.

After the storm of Brian Clough’s brief managerial reign at Leeds United, Jimmy was brought in to calm the situation. One unusual way in which he used to lift the players was to put on a pantomime, which he wrote and organised.

Journalist and broadcaster, Jimmy was also the Football Association kingmaker, responsible for helping to appoint Terry Venables and Glen Hoddle. In a book Saturday, 3pm: 50 eternal delights of modern football, by Daniel Gray, there is a whole chapter headed “Jimmy Armfield’s Voice”.

“His regular tone is soft but serious, a measured grandad explaining why stealing is wrong. Volume rises to express annoyance at a cynical foul (Armfield did have one booking late in his career!) or glee at a wave of attacking play from a team chasing a goal. . . His is a blurring brogue which resonates with depth and honesty, where so much else now is sensation and surface.”

madeleine daviesThe bronze statue of Jimmy Armfield at Bloomfield Road, Blackpool

Jimmy was appointed OBE in 2000 and CBE in 2010. He served as High Sheriff of Lancashire in 2005, his shield hanging in Lancaster Castle with an obvious tangerine tone. Meanwhile, this well-lived life was being nurtured at St Peter’s, Blackpool — recently designated the most deprived parish in the Church of England (Features, 1 December 2017). Jimmy took on the post of treasurer, besides being the church’s organist and choirmaster for 30 years. He was made a Lay Canon of Blackburn Cathedral in 2001.

Still broadcasting on Radio 5 until quite recently, Jimmy enriched the lives of many across the airwaves, but he also had time for individuals. I once invited him to speak at a men’s breakfast organised in a small rural church. He refused any fee, and there he met a young man, new to the Christian faith, who had brought his violin. Jimmy responded to the young man’s request for the two of them to play “Abide with me”. He waited until all had left, then slipped on to the organ seat and played. He then left the man with words of encouragement.

For the past ten years, he had been battling cancer, and was supported by his wife, Anne, a former nurse and member of Jimmy’s choir. He had two sons, Duncan and John.

This humble, kind, and avuncular gentleman moved easily between the world of the Church and the world of football, and served God in any way that he could. I lost count of the number of plaques with Jimmy’s name on in institutions spread across Lancashire.

His last few days were spent in Trinity Hospice, Blackpool, which he had been instrumental in setting up in the first place. As he used to say to young footballers, “You’ve got to think that one day you have to hang your boots up. We all have to finish one day, like we all have to die. You have to prepare for it.”

Kenneth Shenton adds: Jimmy Armfield proved a natural public servant, be it as Chairman of the Lancashire Partnership Against Crime (LANPAC), President of Trinity Hospice, or as a Non-Executive Director and Vice-Chairman of the Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre NHS trust. A Vice-President of Lancashire Outward Bound Trust, he also served for 32 years as a school governor; and, for more than 20 years, he proved to be a most industrious figurehead as President of Age Concern Blackpool and District

He was an impressive orator, and few will forget his moving eulogy at the funeral service for his great friend, Sir Stanley Matthews, at St Peter’s, Stoke-on-Trent, in 2000.

The Revd Damian Feeney adds: As a child, I was taught that Jimmy Armfield was the nearest thing to a football deity that there was. Jimmy delivered, for his club, his community, his country, his Church, and the game itself.

In 1999, I was leading a parish mission in Blackpool, and there was a men’s evening in the local pub. There were two local Christian speakers: Jimmy and the comedian Syd Little. I was able to sit next to Jimmy for the meal, and he said to me “I’ve never spoken at anything like this: what do you want?” I asked him to talk about his faith, and just to be himself. What followed was a revelation. After I introduced him, he stood up, and the room was completely hushed to hear the great man. He spoke in simple, unaffected terms, leaving no one in any doubt that the life of the Christian was the only way he could travel. He was incredible. I will never forget it.

A few years later, I was asked to preach at the centenary service for the church where Jimmy was the organist, St Peter’s, Lytham Road, Blackpool, a parish with a big heart, like Jimmy himself. There was a reception at Blackpool FC afterwards, and Jimmy spoke, again movingly and effectively, about his faith, about the future of the Church in that area, and how important that was for the community.

The universal affection in which he is held is neither accident nor coincidence. He was a lovely, warm, kind, and generous man. Everyone associated with the club, as well as many outside it, will be touched by his passing. The world of football will unite in remembering with gratitude and fond memory one of its greatest sons. Countless people’s lives were touched by Jimmy Armfield. May he now rest in the arms of his Saviour, and know the joy of heaven.

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