Armfield at 80: “Sometimes I feel 18, sometimes 80!” Extended interview

Jimmy Armfield celebrates his 80th birthday
Jimmy Armfield celebrates his 80th birthday
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“I wasn’t sure I’d reach 80 at one time, so I’m just glad I’m here to see it.”

Those are the modest words of one of Blackpool’s most famous sons, Jimmy Armfield, as the footballing icon celebrates his 80th birthday today.

For most playing more than 600 times for Blackpool, captaining England and receiving a CBE from the Queen would be more than enough to sit back and enjoy. But for Armfield, hitting 80 isn’t going to slow him down.

“When you get older you have a tendency to live for the day,” he told The Gazette.

“I was a school governor for 30 years, I still do the coaching advice for the PFA, I’m chairman of the Lancashire Partnership against Crime, President of Age UK Blackpool, President of Trinity Hospice and those keep me mobile all the time.

“Sometimes I feel I’m 18, sometimes I feel I’m 80, although as time goes on I’m increasingly feeling like the latter.

“I have things to keep my mind going, I play the organ which is good for my brain and I’m a keen gardener. That all helps in keeping me active, I’ve always been non-stop, that’s my thing. As a player I was like that, people say I was the first over lapping full-back but that’s just what I’m like.

“I wanted to get on the ball more and do more, so I used to overlap.” During a 17-year playing career Armfield played for just two teams, Blackpool and England, at one point being named the best right-back in the world during the 1962 World Cup.

Now at 80, incredibly he’s still achieving life time ambitions, even if they are a little less public these days.

For a man who’s used to performing in front of thousands, just four or five witnessed something just as special to him last week.

He told The Gazette: “No-one knows this, but I finally got the chance to play the Wurlitzer at Blackpool Tower.

“There was a dinner dance on and probably only a handful of people were there but it was fantastic, a real honour.

“No-one knew it was me playing it, and I’m glad!

“I know my limitations, so it’s not something I’ll be doing again, but it was great to be given the chance.”

Known as ‘Gentleman Jim’, Armfield remains deeply active the Fylde coast community since his 2007 cancer scare.

During his illness, the former England captain received 400 cards to his house two streets back from the Promenade in his adopted home town, while 2,500 emails were sent to Blackpool FC.

“I was among good people,’ Armfield said. “I just wanted to be in Blackpool.

“It was harrowing but I tried to be positive all the time. The two chaps who had treatment with me didn’t make it and I do wonder why I beat the disease.

“Was it because I played sport every day of my young life? I think it might be. I was physically strong and that may well have saved me.

“I also had my own personal nurse, which helped,” he said referring to his wife Anne who he married in Blackpool in 1958. Born in Denton, Manchester in 1935, Armfield moved to Blackpool with his family as a youngster, living in the shadow of Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road stadium.

It was there Armfield was first spotted by then manager Joe Smith, who watched a practice game during which the youngster fired all four goals in his team’s 4-1 win.

He recalled: “I should never have really been a footballer - I passed my 11-plus, went to a rugby-playing school, did my exams and was accepted to study economics at Liverpool University.

“But then along came Blackpool Football Club. I was a local boy and had grown up playing the game on the beach.

“I played in the street and on the beach. I always carried a tennis ball around with me and would kick that against walls on my own but I had never shot at a proper net.

“Before my first trial game for Blackpool I had never even played on a proper pitch.

“It all happened so quickly. My PE teacher was into football and said there was a game for junior players at the ground.

“I went along, we won 4-1 and I scored all four goals. That’s how it started and I went on to captain my country.”

On 27 December 1954, Armfield made the first of 626 appearances in a Blackpool shirt away at Portsmouth, but it’s not a game he remembers fondly.

“That league debut at Fratton Park was not, I fear, a very conspicuous one for me.

“I found myself up against Gordon Dale, a very clever and strong winger with plenty of experience. He was far too good and we lost 3–0.

“Gordon really gave me the run-around, and I realised just how much I had to learn.

“They were a very good team in those days, and they scored a goal in about the first two minutes — and I hadn’t touched the ball.

“We were three down after 15 minutes.”

After playing hundreds of times for the Seasiders Jimmy was honoured with the naming of a stand at Bloomfield Road in 2010, a statue followed a year later.

He was dubbed the best right back on the planet during the 1962 World Cup and went on to be handed the honour of captaining England.

“I loved every single minute of my playing career and didn’t take one day of it for granted,” he said.

“I think my generation was programmed not to. I was a war baby, I didn’t taste chocolate until I was 11, and grew up with rationing.

“We grew up in the dark, holidays were very rare and so any sort of perk was a bonus and we were grateful for it.”

Today, Armfield lives with his wife Anne in South Shore and remains a huge part of the Fylde coast’s community.

He plays the organ at St Peter’s church on Lytham Road, is a health ambassador for the NHS and is heavily involved in the Professional Footballer’s Association.

He’s lived in the same house in Stoneyhurst Avenue for more than 45 years, and has no intentions of ever leaving the town.

“‘Blackpool is in my heart,’ he explained.

“I came here as a little boy during the war with my mother. We lived in a boarding house until the end of the war and we stayed.

“When I look back, Blackpool has been good to me. I still think it has a great deal going for it.

“When I drive home down the M55 and I can see the Tower I always think the sky looks brighter. It always feels brighter to me when I am driving to the west.”

These days, nationally at least, Armfield is best known now for his work for BBC Radio 5 Live, something he has done for 35 years.

When he returned to commentary duties with the BBC in October 2008 after time off battling cancer, he found a note waiting for him at the media reception of Bolton’s Reebok Stadium.

It was from Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton, it simply read: “Welcome back, Jimmy. We have missed you”.

And despite having to slow down these days, he was back on the airwaves as recently as last weekend, co-commentating on Everton’s 3-1 win against Chelsea.

“I’ve said to the BBC I’ll try and do one a month,” he said.

“It’s something I love doing and it was great to be back on air for the Chelsea game.

“We had lots of pleasant messages afterwards, that’s nice to know.”

Armfield remains a popular figure in football, and keeps in touch with many from his playing days.

He added: “My closest friend in football was Ray Charnley who died four years ago now.

“We were room-mates for 10 years.

“We have a get together of the 1966 World Cup winning squad every year, we never tell anyone.

“We don’t get anything sponsored or ask for freebies, we pay for it all ourselves and have done for a number of years.

“Next year is 50 years so we’ll be doing something special.

“We brought them to Blackpool four years ago, Sir Bobby Charlton arranged it. He arranged the hotel and I arranged the golf at St Annes Old Links.”

When you’ve lived the life of Armfield there isn’t much he can look back and say he hasn’t done.

But there is one thing missing from his almost perfect footballing career.

“The only regret is I never won a medal with Blackpool,” he said.

“We were always a good team but we never managed to win anything, we should have with the players we had.

“The proudest moment has to be captaining England for three years, I only lost it through injury.

“I had my case packed to go off to the World Cup in Brazil, ruptured my groin on the last day of the season and ended up in Blackpool Victoria Hospital.”

As for the present, well Armfield couldn’t look happier as we sat down to talk about life in his perfectly kept conservatory.

And he’s pleased to report his health is fine too, keeping fingers crossed of course.

“It’s quite reasonable really,” he said.

“I’m still probably a stone down in weight but that’s good as it takes the pressure off my knees.

“I don’t know how many games I played when you consider my time in the army too. That has all taken its toll on my joints.

“I have checks and things regularly, but I’m OK.

A dinner will be held to celebrate Armfield’s birthday at Blackpool Tower next month, with as many as 500 expected to turn out.

But as ever Jimmy wasn’t going to go over the top about that.

“When you get to my age birthday’s come along far too soon,” he said. “But it should be a good evening, I’m looking forward to it.”