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Catching up with Jimmy Hibburt: Ruddock cycling in a sauna, a naked Lombardo and death threats in Turkey

17 June 2019

Jimmy Hibburt is a former Crystal Palace footballer with a one-sentence Wikipedia page, which meant that when CPFC caught up with the former Eagle, we were armed with nothing but a few comments from a recent interview with his former teammate, David Woozley.

To quote Woozley: “At youth level, Jimmy Hibburt was captain of the England Schoolboys at Under-15 and he was the outstanding player. But for whatever reason, injuries or just growing up, it never panned out.”

Such was Hibburt’s gregarious nature, however, that quote was all we needed and the memories, stories and love for the club came pouring out:

“Everything peaked quite early for me; I was built like a man when I was relatively young, around 13 or 14, and I got into the England U15s/16s schoolboys’ side as captain – in fact Michael Owen was my roommate during that time.

“I played at the old Wembley against Brazil who had Ronaldinho in that side, but we beat them 1-0! That season we won the Victory Shield, and I was lucky enough to score three or four goals during that tournament.”

Captain of a side containing future first-team England internationals Wes Brown, Michael Ball and Michael Owen, Hibburt could’ve picked his destination for his first professional contract but Palace, as so many testify to, create a special bond between club and player.

“When I got into that England Schoolboys, I had the chance to sign pro forms with anyone. But there was only one club I was going to sign for though, just because of how good Palace had been to me growing up through the youth sections; I was in love with the club.”

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In particular it is those early years with Palace and the youth teams that Jimmy remembers most fondly – especially as someone who admitted himself was always at the centre of any jokes being played:

“No matter what career you have, it always seems that the youth teams are the times you can have a bit of a laugh because you can’t drive, so you travel everywhere together. But when you turn pro that’s when things turn a little bit more serious, more cutthroat.”

Few things are more serious than making your full first-team league debut away at Bolton Wanderers, a game that although Palace lost 2-0, Hibburt recalls with such pride due to his own performance:

“I played on the right-hand side of midfield in a 4-4-2 with Dean Austin behind me; I was up against Bolton’s Ricardo Gardner.

“I had a really good game and Dean Austin coached me through that 90 minutes; I felt at home and the likes of Dean, Simon Rodger and Andy Linighan were superb for me, just wonderful role models – they got the club and understood how to help the youngsters through. Dean Austin was the ultimate pro.

“What many don’t realise is that after my performance in the Bolton game, I was in to start against QPR in our next match at Selhurst Park on the right-hand side of midfield again. However, unfortunately, one of my good friends, Andrew Frampton, put in a nasty challenge on my ankle the day before, and that put me out of the game and was the beginning of a bit of a downward spiral in terms of injuries.

“I remember returning from that injury and playing against Charlton. However, I broke my toe in the first-half but still carried on for the rest of the game.”

Prior to the handful of league appearances, Hibburt actually played in the 1998 Intertoto Cup during the summer. Through laughter, the former midfielder recalls the somewhat scary learning curve that happened to him out in Turkey:

“We were in the Intertoto Cup against Samsunspor, and lost the first-leg 2-0 at Selhurst Park, so for the second-leg in Turkey, Terry Venables actually called myself and Wooz up. I was lucky enough to come on for the final 12 minutes and it was unbelievable learning and listening to Terry; he was just telling me to go out there and enjoy myself.

“There’s quite a funny story actually, because I was keen to impress and show Terry what I was capable of; I was delighted to get on – perhaps too excited!

“Samsunspor’s atmosphere was one of those classic ‘Welcome to hell’; a real hostile one. And the game was over, we were 4-0 down on aggregate with a few minutes left, and we had a corner but they hit us on the counter attack; I was chasing this guy back and it was one of those scenarios where I take all of the man and all of the ball.

“From then, though, the Samsunspor fans absolutely hated me – I had to get a police escort out of the ground with Terry Venables because their fans were waving knives and spitting at me.”

The respect for Venables is obvious. However, it is Steve Coppell that Hibburt feels a special bond with: “Coppell just understood the club; he just sums up Palace for me. He would always talk to me about Bobby Charlton, what Bobby Charlton did or would’ve done.

“It was a completely different approach from Terry Venables’, with Steve being more laid back but he still had that ability to let you know when you’d done wrong.

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“I can’t speak highly enough of Steve; he was a guy you wanted to do well for because he just understood the fans and the players.”

The tales of on the pitch moments subsides and talk turns to those off the field moments, those stories away from the 90 minutes at Selhurst Park.

The laughter begins again.

Hibburt then asks if Woozley had told the CPFC site the Attilio Lombardo story? He had told the club one but not the one Hibburt wanted to tell - even if David had, you can never tire of hearing Lombardo stories anyway.

“Attilio joined Palace, and it was incredible. But I always remember his first day, he walked across the dressing room naked and went and laid down on the physio’s table – Attilio was used to having pre-training massages but this sort of prep was ahead of the time for the English game and he just assumed this was common place at Palace – but we were all thinking: ‘what’s going on here?!’

“The look of bewilderment the physio gave him was priceless and everyone was laughing. However, within two days there were masseuses everywhere at the club as all of us jumped on this bandwagon – ultimately, his influence sort of changed the club a little bit for the better.”

On the topic of characters, Hibburt moves on to his final year with Palace, a year that the now-39-year-old has no real recollection of, apart from Neil Ruddock - this begins the ‘most’ Razor Ruddock story we’ve all become accustomed to over the years.

“That last part of my Palace life, that season of being injured, all I really remember is Neil Ruddock. I think part of his contract was to stay under a certain weight, and I always remember him cycling in the sauna to sweat it all out when Simon Jordan was coming down to see him.

“He kept me sane during that season, though, with his humour and buzz for life.”

It wasn’t so much the mood changed, but as we broached the topic of Hibburt’s Palace exit, you can feel how tough it would’ve been on the then-22-year-old. Hibburt is more than happy to discuss the impact on him and how it all happened, but that feeling of him almost looking back at himself during our chat, like an out of body experience, as Steve Kember tells him the news he never wanted to hear, is apparent if not mentioned:

“The year I left I had actually been injured for most of the season and it absolutely broke my heart.

“Steve Kember had taken over, and I was tight with Steve through the youth teams, and it was the hardest day when I received the news I was being let go; I still don’t know what he said to this day, it’s just a blur.

“As soon as the conversation started with the news that I was getting let go, despite staying in there for another 15/20 minutes talking about things, I have no idea what I said – it is just the weirdest feeling.

“Clinton [Morrison] and Hayden [Mullins] came out to have a chat with me but I was just in tears.”

The links to Palace didn’t end there completely, though, with a Brentford manager called Steve Coppell hearing of Jimmy’s release from the Eagles and giving him a call:

“I got invited to Woking, and I was going to go there but Steve rang me three days after being released and took me to Brentford to get fit - I was there for three or so months and went there with Stephen Hunt.

“I then got asked to go play out in MLS with FC Dallas and everything about it appealed to me; I was all over the place in my head and really fancied the idea of a clean break somewhere different.

“Steve Coppell sat me down and said: ‘Look, there’s a contract offer here for you if you’re interested. But go and experience Dallas for the two weeks, see what you make of it.’ Dallas wanted me to come out for a couple of weeks, so I did that.

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“On my first day out there, a trialist – and somewhat rather awkwardly, my roommate in the hotel they’d put us up in – jumped into my Achilles tendon and that was the end of the road.

“As I left Palace and went over to America, I fell out of love with football for a couple of years; I wasn’t a nice person to be around.”

Now, 18 years on from a conversation that, despite no real recollection of, crushed him, Hibburt is back in love with the beautiful game and very much looking to make an impact from the side of the pitch.

“I am really enjoying my work down at Bedfont Sports, a non-league side in the Bostik League, where we look to give young lads dropped from big clubs another chance – we’ve just got a couple who have just been released from QPR.

“Honestly, I’ve just got that buzz back; I feel like I have so much to offer. I was speaking to Hayden the other day at Clinton’s 40thbirthday party, and we spoke about me going and shadowing him at Watford for a few sessions.”

So, who knows, perhaps our former player with a one-sentence Wikipedia page is about to get a managerial section added…

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