Hiley relishes a second chance in battle of wits with Ronaldo

Manchester United's excursion to the West Country offers a rare opportunity for Exeter's veteran defender
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Amid the wide-eyed young men who celebrated Exeter City's remarkable draw at Old Trafford in the FA Cup third round was an equally wide-eyed gnarled old veteran. At 36, Scott Hiley has seen and done most of what professional football has to offer, from playing in the Premiership to going under the surgeon's knife, but he was as ecstatic as the rookie goalkeeper, Paul Jones.

Amid the wide-eyed young men who celebrated Exeter City's remarkable draw at Old Trafford in the FA Cup third round was an equally wide-eyed gnarled old veteran. At 36, Scott Hiley has seen and done most of what professional football has to offer, from playing in the Premiership to going under the surgeon's knife, but he was as ecstatic as the rookie goalkeeper, Paul Jones.

Hiley's delight was understandable. A born-and-bred Devonian he has been with Exeter City, man and boy, for almost as long as 18-year-old Jones has been alive. "The club is in my heart," he said.

Taken on at 11, Hiley played in the team which won Exeter's only honour, the 1989-90 Fourth Division title. His career then took him to Birmingham City, Manchester City, Southampton and Portsmouth but was almost destroyed by injury.

He returned to Exeter only to be relegated to the Conference with them. Eschewing retirement, or a move back into the League, he took a pay cut, and the added responsibility of assistant manager, and played on. Old Trafford was his reward, though the right-back might pay for it when Cristiano Ronaldo gets the ball in tonight's replay at St James Park.

"I'd pay to watch him. He has exceptional feet," said Hiley of his probable opponent. "The game's all about entertainment, players like Ronaldo and [Wayne] Rooney, [Georgi] Kinkladze and [Robert] Prosinecki."

The latter are past team-mates, an indication of the level Hiley reached. Such experience has its advantages. Whereas an 18-year-old, presented with the man-of-the-match champagne at Old Trafford, might have sprayed it across the dressing-room for the cameras, Hiley had more sensible plans.

"I'll be keeping it. It's something to show my grandchildren. I could drink it and keep the bottle but that would take the edge off it. To go back to somewhere like Old Trafford at my age... I really enjoyed it. Coming to the end of my career it was probably a one-off."

But for injury Hiley might have made a name for himself in Manchester on a more permanent basis. In 1996, having become one of the many fringe players at Barry Fry's overstaffed Birmingham City - "we didn't have five-a-sides, we had 15-a-sides" - he was plucked from their reserves to play for Manchester City. Alan Ball, who had been Hiley's manager at Exeter, signed him but Hiley was just establishing himself when he broke his ankle in three places at Bolton. By the time he was fit the club had been relegated and Ball departed.

"I got back in under [caretaker manager] Asa Hartford but then I suffered a ruptured tendon," said Hiley. "I was out for 14 months during which time City had several other managers. By the time I came back, under Joe Royle, it was very difficult to force my way in... I wanted to prove myself on that stage and I was at a great club with great fans. But I only played nine games in two and a half years.

"Being told it will be an awful long time before you come back, if you come back at all, really knocks you for six. It was a long road. You don't travel or train with the team. I was on my own for almost two seasons and that was difficult."

Salvation arrived through Terry Cooper, who had given Hiley his debut at Exeter and signed him for Birmingham. Cooper recommended him to Dave Jones at Southampton. Hiley played a season, but then Jones decided he wanted to bring in younger players. By then Ball was back in management, at Portsmouth.

"He said 'we need a right-back'. I wasn't sure. There is such a rivalry between the clubs. Ballie said, 'If you show what you can do they'll take to you.' Two days later he was sacked.

"My first match was Sunderland away. It's a long way by bus and I remember sitting there thinking 'maybe this was the wrong move'. Then a few weeks later David Jones left Southampton and I began to wonder what would have happened if I'd stayed." By then Hiley was in Portsmouth reserves. Those were the good days. On the bad ones he was in the first team.

"Tony Pulis came in and didn't fancy me so I didn't play much but when I did I was getting booed because of the Southampton connection. It was quite stressful at the time. Every time I had the ball I was booed, whatever I did. That's hard to take when you are playing at home. And they make a lot of noise at Fratton. When they're booing you can hear it.

"Then Steve Claridge [a Pompey legend] came in and put me straight in the side. With him being so respected the fans thought they'd give me a chance. Steve told me he'd give me a run of games regardless and gradually I won them over. I ended up the fans' player of the year which was a big turnaround."

Claridge, though, did not survive and eventually Harry Redknapp took over. Once again, Hiley was told younger men were required. A family illness meant his thoughts turned to home and Exeter were pleased to have him. They still are.

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