Sheffield United: Former Bristol City favourite Matt Hill speaks out as his two old clubs clash
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“If I’m late, I’ll be in trouble. They might end up giving me lines.”
But the former defender, now manager of non-league side Stafford Rangers, always clears space on his schedule to discuss football. Particularly when it involves two of his old clubs.
Later this evening, Bristol City - the team Hill grew-up supporting and spent seven years as a professional - play host to Sheffield United, his home for two of the most eventful during a long and varied career. Now aged 41, Hill will spend the afternoon patrolling the touchline at the Weaver Stadium, where his Rangers team face Nantwich Town. But once their debrief has finished, he plans to settle down in front of a television and watch the action unfold inside Ashton Gate. Sixth in the table with only four games remaining and two points ahead of seventh placed Middlesbrough, the outcome is of critical importance to the visitors’ play-off hopes.
Born and bred in the south-west, Hill’s accent still betrays his Bristol roots. However as he traces his journey through the game, which also includes pit stops at places including Wolverhampton Wanderers, Preston North End and Blackpool, it quickly becomes apparent Hill still boasts a soft spot for Bramall Lane. With ex-City manager Danny Wilson responsible for luring him there a decade ago, the two destinations are inextricably linked in Hill’s life story.
“Both of them, they’re brilliant teams and a lot bigger than many people realise,” Hill says. “It was a privilege to represent both.
“I’d worked with Danny down at City and so it was great to link up with him again. He’s a top guy, a really good bloke and very good at what he does too.
“It was interesting, because although they’re miles apart in terms of distance, there’s a lot of similarities between City and United in my eyes. Passionate fans who really get behind you and, even now, I regard myself as being privileged to have represented them.”
Hill’s time at United might have been brief. But it was also eventful. Wilson’s sacking, towards the end of the 2012/13 League One season, is something he still regards as a mistake. “Even though we got into the play-offs, losing in the semi-finals unfortunately, I don’t think he should have gone when he did.” Initially arriving on loan - together with a young John Egan, then of Sunderland - Hill’s colleagues included the likes of Harry Maguire and Conor Coady. Under Nigel Clough’s stewardship, when United quickly dispensed with the services of Wilson’s permanent successor David Weir, he joined them in the squad which reached the FA Cup semi-finals; making a late substitute appearance towards the end of a tie which saw Clough’s men, despite competing in the third tier, give top-flight Hull City one hell of a scare.
“Nigel, he was very different to Danny,” Hill says, briefly diverting from the script. “Very serious, if you want to put it like that. Whenever you were talking to him, you always felt like you were being put to the test a bit. You were a little on edge. But then, the more you got to know him, the more you realised he could have a joke. A different personality to Danny, though. Definitely.”
Hill’s biggest regret at United is that they never achieved a promotion during his second spell in South Yorkshire; having represented Barnsley before moving to Bloomfield Road. “If we’d have been able to get up, that would have been the icing on the cake. Still, I’ve got great memories of the place. A great bunch of lads.”
It is something United would later achieve twice under the legendary Chris Wilder, who took charge 24 months after the last of Hill’s 95 appearances. Following a spell with Tranmere Rovers, he joined Bradford Park Avenue before eventually hanging-up his boots.
Relegated from the Premier League towards the end of last term, United are now hoping to earn themselves another shot at the big time under Paul Heckingbottom. City, where Hill progressed through the youth system before making nearly 250 senior outings, are 18th.
“Nevermind that, it’s going to be a really well contested,” he predicts, dismissing the suggestion that Nigel Pearson’s side will provide less than stout opposition. “The City supporters demand that and the players will want to show what they can do.
“I remember my time there. To begin with, I didn’t realise what a big deal it was - becoming a pro and a pro for your hometown club. Obviously my mates let me know and, it might sound funny, but it really began to dawn on me when I was buying the Bristol Evening Post and seeing my match-ratings.
“It’s an area, like Sheffield, that demands its players give everything for the shirt. The rivalry with Bristol Rovers - even though I’ve got mates who follow them too, it was always nice to beat them - that intensifies everything as well. The same as United and Sheffield Wednesday.
“Looking back, mind, the first time it really hit me was when I’d go out with a few of the boys on the town and people started recognising you - telling you that you’d had a good game or a terrible one.
“Not that I went out much of course, even though Bristol has got a great nightlife. Just put down that it happened when I went out shopping.”
Having been appointed by Rangers at the beginning of the NPL Premier Division campaign, Hill is now keeping an eye on his own players’ social itineraries.
“If anyone tries to pull the wool over my eyes, they should remember I probably tried what they’re doing once,” he laughs, before ending the call and powering up his laptop.