Hill primed for steepest of climbs

Tim Collings meets a legend of Luton hoping to restore old glories
Click to follow
The Independent Online

As a player, Ricky Hill always put the needs of Luton Town ahead of any thoughts of displaying his own lavish skills. He kept his game simple, worked for the collective cause and was rewarded with a long career highlighted by three England caps and a Littlewoods Cup-winner's medal.

As a player, Ricky Hill always put the needs of Luton Town ahead of any thoughts of displaying his own lavish skills. He kept his game simple, worked for the collective cause and was rewarded with a long career highlighted by three England caps and a Littlewoods Cup-winner's medal.

His reputation as a talented ball-player with flair was synonymous with the club he represented more than 500 times, scoring 65 goals, in the David Pleat and Ray Harford eras. He might even have made the Hatters, a family club, a fashionable Premiership name.

Alas, since his and the club's heyday of the middle and late 1980s, Luton have fallen out of the élite and rejoined the frustrated members of English football's poor country-cousins in the Nationwide League. Hill's return to Kenilworth Road, however, following his appointment as successor to the experienced and wily Lennie Lawrence in July, is intended to change all that. The new chairman, Mike Watson-Challis, who took control in the summer, expects Hill, together with his assistant Chris Ramsey, to turn the tide, revive the club's image and fortunes and rekindle "some of our past glories".

It is some task, but if anyone can do it, Hill can. As one of the first black players to claim a place in the England team and overcome the racist abuse of the Seventies and Eighties, he demonstrated great resolve. He also overcame injuries and showed exceptional loyalty to Luton in 14 years' service from 1975 to 1989, but was treated shabbily by the directors when he eventually left for Le Havre, in France, before later playing and coaching in the United States with Rodney Marsh's Tampa Bay Rowdies (where he won Coach of the Year) and Coco Beach, Cape Canaveral.

Other stints with Leicester City, as a player, and Sheffield Wednesday and Tottenham, as a coach, have added depth to an intriguing cv. "It still feels a little strange, to be back and walking up these stairs as manager, but I am getting used to it," he said. "Nothing has really changed. It's the same as always. So, it is easy. In a way, yes, it's a bit like coming home.

"But I'm here to do a job anddo it properly. Over the years, Luton have always had a big nucleus of black players and some, like Marvin [Johnson, club captain] have progressed to the first team. He's been here 17 years. Hopefully, I can bring a lot more like him through."

Hill's job will be to combine generous coaching skills, which can ensure the club develop talents, with a responsibility to play entertaining and successful football, but on a limited budget. He will ask his players for concentration and effort, allied to simplicity and sacrifice, and seek performances which reflect his belief in free-flowing football. "Every player has a responsibility to the team," he said. "When we have the ball, we're all attacking. When we lose it, everyone has to defend. Everyone must play the game the proper way."

In his own career, Hill could recall only two cautions. "Once for handball and once for a deliberate trip, in 17 or 18 years. Never for dissent. I don't believe in dissent. I believe that, whatever happens, you just have to get on with it."

If Hill had had his own agent, he might have taken advantage of one of the many inquiries for his services and moved earlier in his career to Bobby Robson's Ipswich Town, Atletico Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain, but instead he stayed in Bedfordshire, mostly happily, for 15 years. "It was generally a happy love affair but, a bit like a marriage, it just seemed to disappear at the end. I had a year of my contract to run when Gérard Houllier recommended me to Le Havre. Brian Stein had left for Caen the year before, but David Evans, the then chairman, wanted money to release me. It was sad, but I had to move on."

Hill does not go into detail, but his departure hurt him financially (it is believed he paid the transfer fee out of his own pocket) and emotionally, and it is to his credit that he has put it behind him to return. "It was a lesson," he recounted. "It shows, too, that I am not inexperienced or soft. I had a lot of knocks in my career. In 1975, there were no black players in the side and, mentally, it wasn't easy. I was one of 22 out there and I was getting all the stick.

"But the way to fight back is not verbally. It's to do what you can do best, which is to play football. I didn't mind getting tackled or kicked. It was like being complimented. I'd get up, smile and brush myself down. It is part of my upbringing."

His hardships, his skill and his travels, not to mention his philosophy of showing patience and sympathy to players, should stand him in good stead this season, for which he has added the experienced Mark Stein, 34, and promising Peter Holmes, 20, to his squad. He knows the Second Division will be a hard school, but he is ready.

Second Division players to watch

Jamie Cureton (Bristol Rovers) Prolific goalscorer last term. Can he do it again without Jason Roberts alongside?

Lionel Perez (Cambridge) Eccentric keeper has his work cut out to shore up notoriously porous defence.

John Sheridan (Oldham) Former Sheffield Wednesday playmaker still has the class to shine at this level.

Jason Lee (Peterborough) Pineapple-head no more and no one dares take the mickey these days as the goals flow.

Comments