James Hill: Why are Sheffield United interested in the Fleetwood defender, and can they beat Leeds United, Southampton and Co. to his signing?

Sheffield United have been linked with a move for James Hill, the highly-rated England U20 defender currently learning his craft in League One with Fleetwood Town.

Tuesday, 4th January 2022, 12:27 pm

A number of clubs are keeping tabs on the 19-year-old, who is the son of former Blades defender Matt. But who is he, who else is interested – and what are United’s chances of unveiling him as a Blade?

Knockbacks

Hill joined Fleetwood at 14 after being rejected by both Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers as a youngster. When he made his Fleetwood debut in the EFL Cup in 2018, coming off the bench in a 4-0 defeat to Leicester City at 16 years old, he became the club’s youngest ever player and played two further League One games that season.

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But last season was his breakthrough one, making 35 appearances in all competitions and he has made 15 more this campaign as Fleetwood look to keep their head above water in the League One relegation battle.

Why are United interested?

Hill often lines up at right centre-half for Fleetwood and England U20s and with Blades boss Paul Heckingbottom talking recently about “succession planning”, it seems sensible if Hill is viewed as a long-term replacement for Chris Basham.

According to Wyscout stats, Hill’s defensive stats stack up well compared to Basham’s – with the usual caveats relating to the difference in divisions. Hill wins more defensive duels per 90 minutes, and more aerial battles, with 6.16 interceptions per game measuring up well against Basham’s 6.28.

James Hill in action for Fleetwood Town

Going forward Hill doesn’t compare with Basham but then again, not many centre-halves in English football would. United’s unique system is perfectly suited to Basham’s skillset and to compare the two in that way would be unfair at this stage.

The young man is still learning his trade at 19, but there is plenty there to be impressed about.

Who else is looking at him?

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom has a reputation for working well with young players such as James Hill: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Just about every club higher up in the football pyramid, depending on which media outlet you read. Leeds United and Southampton have had a good look, while Fleetwood chairman Andy Pilley said that Barcelona had sent scouts to Highbury recently to check on Hill’s progress.

Chelsea and Liverpool have also been mentioned, while some media reports suggest that Tottenham are also involved.

What has been said about him?

James Hill's father Matt is a former Sheffield United defender

“It helps having Matty because he understands perfectly the ups and downs and pitfalls that a career can have,” Simon Grayson, Hill’s former manager at Fleetwood, told The Athletic recently.

“The biggest thing is that he has been able to give himself a platform to perform at Fleetwood. There are a lot of players who will be playing with the under-23s at their clubs who won’t be getting the exposure of being in the first team but he’s done that from a very young age.

“James’ next step will not be going to the biggest of clubs on paper but the one that is the best for the next stage of his development. He doesn’t need to go to a top Premier League club if he’s not going to play much there.

“The next stop will be crucial but he has good people around him to advise him when that comes around.”

So, what are the Blades’ chances here?

Fleetwood Town's James Hill is a target for a host of clubs in January ... including Sheffield United (Ashley Western/MB Media/Getty Images)

Pilley admits freely that Fleetwood are resigned to losing Hill, whose contract is close to expiring, and if United do firm up their reported interest with a bid their chances of landing the highly-rated youngster will likely depend on him.

If he sees his next move as a chance to be set up for life– and no-one could blame him if he did – then United won’t be able to compete financially with some of the other clubs linked with Hill.

But if, as expected, he makes his next move with his on-field career in mind, then the Blades will hope that their reputation – and that of their manager – of developing and trusting young players will work in their favour.

The relative riches of signing for a Chelsea, Liverpool or Spurs would be hard to ignore, with a long contract and decent signing-on fee thrown into the mix. But that must be balanced against the probability of playing for any of those clubs in the next few years, or the likelihood of joining the dozens of other players repeatedly farmed out on loan season after season.

As Grayson hinted, this next move is a big one in Hill’s career development and it can do no harm that a former footballer dad is in his corner, rather than one possibly susceptible to being seduced by the bright lights of the Premier League.

Hill Snr. will have only his son’s best career interests at heart and will know that joining a club where he can showcase his abilities could be the best route for his lad to the Premier League – either by helping United get there, or by performing consistently and earning a move as a more established first-team footballer (see Joe Rodon at Spurs, for example, or Adam Webster at Brighton).

As disheartening as it is to imagine a Blades side without Basham rampaging forward, he is not getting any younger and, as ridiculously fit as he still is, his overlapping days will one day come to an end. United are right to prepare for that sad eventuality. And if dad Matt can have a word in his son’s ear about what a good club United is to play for, then it can surely do their chances no harm.