Hillsy - the down to earth football star

IT'S people like Ashley Cole who are responsible for the public's perception of the modern day footballer.

IT'S people like Ashley Cole who are responsible for the public's perception of the modern day footballer.

Take this extract from the Arsenal and England man's autobiography: "When I heard (my agent) Jonathan Barnett repeat the figure of 55k a week, I nearly swerved off the road.

'He is taking the (mickey), Jonathan!' I yelled down the phone. I was so incensed. I was trembling with anger. I couldn't believe what I'd heard."

You greedy – insert own expletive here – is the reaction most people in the street would have on reading that.

Let me introduce then a man who is the polar opposite of Ashley Cole and co.

John Hills, who, lest we forget, played one division outside of the Premiership for five seasons, stands for everything that is good about the game.

He has no edge. He's approachable and just as happy talking to a roadsweeper as he is a millionaire footballer.

A thoroughly decent bloke it's a shame that at 30 – fairly young in footballing terms – he isn't playing full time.

Just a few months after leaving Blackpool, Hills is splitting his time between turning out for Fleetwood Town in the Blue Square North and pulling pints behind the bar of the Welcome pub in Marton, a new business venture he's entered into with his friend Andy Trotter.

Is Hills – excuse the pun – bitter about the way things have turned out? Not a chance.

A man who has always placed happiness above all else, Hills is content and rightly so.

He's had a fine career and earned a few bob. But here's something you may not know. For a while it didn't look as though he'd make it.

"I always wanted to be a footballer but I only just scraped getting a YTS at Blackpool when I was 16," he said.

"My first year YTS I was sub a lot for the youth team and not getting a game.

"I just worked really hard on my fitness and managed to get in the team, get a good run, and then second year I think I improved quite a lot.

"We had a coach at the time, Neil Bailey, who went on to Manchester United and is now assistant at Sunderland with Roy Keane. He's the one I learned a lot from.

"In my second year as a YTS we played Everton in an FA Youth Cup and I had a really good game. I was up against a lad who was earmarked as the next big thing and I marked him out of the game.

"Everton came to watch me a few games after that and I ended up signing there.

"It was a great to go to the training ground and mix with all those players. Neville Southall, Duncan Ferguson, Andy Hinchcliffe – it was that era.

"I played a few games in the Premier League. I came on against Wimbledon as sub. Then my full debut was against Chelsea. It was an unbelievable feeling with a big crowd."

Hills had plenty of pals at Goodison. Gavin McCann, a mate from Lozz Rose's YMCA side in Lytham, was there, so was another local lad Jamie Milligan.

"The three of us used to live together and they were good years, some good times," added Hills. "There are plenty of tales, I just can't tell you any!

"Big Duncan Ferguson was good though. He used to like a night out.

"He used to take a few of the young lads with him and buy them all drinks, so when he was going out we used to have a good time.

"It was a free night. In fact you used to wake up in morning with more money than you went out with because Dunc gave you some from his own pocket. He used to look after the young lads."

Those good times ended when Joe Royle was sacked, Howard Kendall came in and – in Hills's opinion – didn't give the young lads a chance.

Hills had a choice between staying and making do with reserve team football, moving to Bradford City or joining Nigel Worthington's Blackpool.

A homebird at heart, there was only one choice, especially after a successful three-month loan spell with the Seasiders in 1998.

He signed permanently, the fee 60,000, and began what would be a five-year stint at Bloomfield Road.

"I came because, although there were a few things going on off the pitch at that time and the team wasn't doing too well, I was a young lad and I was desperate for first team football. It was also Blackpool, the club I supported and loved," said Hills.

"It was a great dressing room. Tommy Jaszczun, Phil Barnes, Milligan, John O'Kane ... out of all my career that was the best time. We had a good laugh together and we mixed really well off the pitch.

"I remember before a game at Wycombe quite a few of us shaved our heads. It was just boredom in the hotel room I think and once one had it done we all dared each other to get it done.


"I keep in touch with quite a lot of those lads. All throughout my career I've always kept in touch with people and I still speak to a lot of those in that Blackpool squad."

The highlights of Hills's stay were the League Two play-off and LDV Final victories at the Millennium Stadium.

Just a pity that it all ended on a sour note when Hills couldn't agree a new contract, after allegedly wanting the princely sum of an extra 200.

"It was a pity because I'd always got on with Steve McMahon but at the time of my contract dispute it got a bit sour and he stopped playing me.

"We sort of fell out but if I saw him now I know he'd be all right with me and I'd be all right with him."

In many ways Hills had the last laugh. While Pool languished in League One, the left-footer spent four seasons in the Championship with Gillingham and Sheffield Wednesday.

Then after Blackpool finally caught up and won promotion last summer, he moved home.

The scene was set for a glorious swansong to his career, but it didn't work out.

One league start all season says it all and he was released during the summer.

"I was really disappointed because I should have played more really. I feel I deserved to play more," said Hills.

"When I was in the team, at Barnsley in January, I played really well and I got the highest mark in the paper, that kind of thing. So to be dropped the next week was a big disappointment for me.

"I get on with Simon Grayson really well and I played with him before he was manager at Blackpool. There are no hard feelings, I was just disappointed with his decision to drop me.

"I disagreed with him at that time because I thought it was wrong. But he is the manager and he is doing really well and good luck to him. I want Blackpool to do really well.

"It just didn't happen for me and then I got a bad injury in a reserve game against Preston at the end of the year and that just summed the season up."

A summer operation left Hills short of fitness and prevented him finding a new club.

Now he's playing on a non-contract basis for Fleetwood, as well as taking up a new career – pub landlord.

"It's probably true that not many footballers who played in the Championship a few months ago would roll their sleeves up and get behind a bar, but I don't mind working, I never have," added Hills.

"I know everyone says footballers have an easy life – a couple of hours a day and what have you. It's probably true but I love football and that's what I wanted to do.

"But I don't mind now I'm not doing it full time and I don't mind working. I've worked every day, all day since we got the pub. It's been hard but it's paying off because business is up and we're making a success of it."

But doesn't he still yearn to be a full time footballer? "I'm not too sure myself at the minute," says Hills.

"I'm enjoying what I'm doing – at Fleetwood and at the pub – and it's nice to be at home in Blackpool where my friends and family are.

"Whichever way I go I'm sure I'll be happy."

Of that there is no doubt.