Club historian David Bull remembers Jimmy Gabriel, who has died aged 80.
Jimmy Gabriel was my greatest No 6, forever in my all-time Saints XI, despite the later claims of Jim Steele and Michael Svensson.
When Jimmy signed for Southampton in July 1967, it was a triumph for manager Ted Bates at his pragmatic best. Bates was looking for a wing-half but jibbed at Preston’s asking price of £75,000 for Howard Kendall. So he paid Blackpool £28,500 for Hugh Fisher, instead. Then, when Kendall signed for Everton, Ted bought Gabriel, the midfielder he’d displaced, for £42,500. How smart was that?
Jimmy could have stayed at Goodison as a centre-back, but he wished to remain in midfield. Dream on! His versatility counted against him – he would jolly well play where his manager needed him.
By February 1968, he had worn shirts 5, 11 and 4, but then John McGrath arrived to command the No 5 shirt and a dream partnership was born. Jimmy would now play at No 6 in what he described as his “best position for Southampton – as assistant to Big John.”
As a player who had won silverware at Everton and been twice capped by Scotland, Jimmy could afford to shrug off the advice of his Goodison teammate, Alan Ball, that he’d “not win anything” at Southampton.
Ball was, of course, right – unless you count the Daily Express five-a-side trophy in 1971, when Jimmy “I’ll-take-these-three” Gabriel played as a sole defender (as pictured, top, alongside teammates Eric Martin, Bobby Stokes, Terry Paine and Mick Channon). Yet he saw himself as a winner at The Dell – battling to win enough matches to keep the Saints in the top flight. This was an attitude endorsed both by Bates and by Paine, with each of whom Jimmy formed a mutual admiration society.
The thinking he shared with Paine became significant in 1968 when the Board appointed John Mortimore as the first assistant to Bates, with responsibilities that included coaching. Jimmy felt that Terry and he were capable of “coaching” attackers and defenders, respectively, and didn’t “think it was the time, at Southampton, for coaches.” Mortimore, followed by Stuart Williams, were “stepping on the ground,” Jimmy reckoned, “that belonged to Terry and me.”
When the time came for coaches in the mid-1970s, Jimmy would become one of them – mainly in the USA, latterly at the University of Washington in Seattle.
When I met him in Seattle, back a while, I didn’t interview him, so much as switch on the recorder and listen in awe. Being greedy, I later met up with him in Christchurch to listen anew. Jimmy was not just my greatest No 6, but my greatest footballing philosopher.
10th October 1940 – 10th July 2021
Photos courtesy of the Duncan Holley collection