Betfred Sport

The Gordon Hill column: A bird's eye view of becoming a top player

What does it take to get there and play at the top? Everyone, no matter what profession, needs help and guidance from other people if they want to be a success in life. Footballers more than most, rely on the influences of others. Why? Because like most talented artists, they need to be motivated and sometimes bullied into climbing the ladder to fame and fortune.

This week I'd like to devote my column to those people who've played their part in assisting me along the road to the top. I suppose the person I owe most to is my mum, because she told me in no uncertain terms that I would never make a professional footballer! She reckoned I was too full of myself and cocky to get anywhere.

As a lad, I naturally thought I knew all the answers and that no one could teach me anything about kicking a ball. Mum's doubts about my ability and character made me even more determined to become a professional player.

Her words kept driving me on, I just had to prove that she was wrong. Dad didn't take much interest in football. I came from a large family of five brothers and three sisters, and so he spent most of his time working to keep the Hill show on the road.

But two of my elder brothers, Sid and Graham, were enormous influences on me at the start. So was our next door neighbour in Sunbury-on-Thames, Johnny Taylor. They took me to the park at every opportunity, playing with them and against their mates taught me a lot; above all how to take care of myself.

A sort of toughening up process, if you like. All three were good players and played a very high amateur level, but I always knew what I wanted to be, even though I was a few years younger. All three of them played for a professional club as a schoolboy then went on to play in the Rothmans Isthmian League in London.

Avoid being kicked 

Johnny knew a fair bit about the game as well and taught me a few tricks, mainly on how to avoid being kicked up in the air every time I got the ball. I never really gave school a thought, and that is something I sometimes regret.

I also owe a lot to the PE teachers at school. They realized I would one day earn a living with my feet and encouraged me. Because I often played against older boys, I came in for a fair amount of stick. As I would lie on the ground, more often than not in a pool of mud, they’d scream at me from the touchline "get up Hill, don't be scared, get up and get stuck into them.”

They taught me the virtue of courage, they installed confidence in me, and for that, I will always be grateful. Through the honours I gained at school and then club football, I went on to win England youth caps. In charge of the side was Ken Burton, who was one of Don Revie's assistants with the full England squad.

Ken was a great influence as well. He believed in my ability to make a name for myself in the game and taught me the importance of dedication and determination. I'd listen to Ken for hours; for the first time in my life, I had met a man whose advice I was prepared to take. Especially on tactics.

After leaving QPR and going on, I agreed to play for Southall with my brother Sid. I played under a manager called Tommy Tranter and he was a lecturer at Borough Road College where they turn out PE teachers.

Tommy motivated me ensuring that I never lost heart or had doubts about the talent I had been blessed with. In January 1973 came the big moment of my life: I signed professionally for Millwall and met Benny Fenton another man to whom I owe a lot too.

Players' resentment

Benny was the Lions’ boss at the time. He put his complete trust and faith in me, but was constantly under-fire from various sources including a couple of players who resented my signing as brash.

They thought I was too big-headed and too young to be given a chance in the side. I could always take care of myself and gave as much verbal stick as I received, but Benny did his best to protect me from unnecessary resentment. That man put his head on the block, but he followed his judgment and gave me my first chance. I will always be eternally grateful to Benny Fenton.

Mind you, I did have my fans. The Millwall fans, they were fantastic and made me feel like one of them. They are part of me and my upbringing, along with a close friend who I lost last year: Brian Clark, another true professional. He told me to play my natural game and pay no attention to the criticism from certain quarters.

In November 1975, I was transferred to Manchester United under the stewardship of one of the finest managers in the game, Tommy Docherty (pictured). He was a whole-hearted man and had the special knack of boosting a player’s confidence and bringing the best out of him.

The Doc was a great character. He commanded respect and total dedication from everyone on the field but he was my friend and councillor off the field as well. Tommy Doc had so much to do with my development and progress in to the full England team.

Don Revie was the England manager at the time. Apart from his tremendous record at Leeds, there were two things that I admired about the man: the way he put his ideas across, and his total dedication to the game and his country. But the most important person for me - because behind every great player is a devoted wife – is my wife Claire who has always been there for me. I love you.

To all those I have just mentioned, thank you for your part in my life as a football player.

By Gordon Hill

Gordon Hill was capped six times for England in the 1970s and made 132 appearances for Manchester United, scoring 51 goals. He scored both United goals in their 1976 FA Cup semi-final win against Derby and played in the Red Devils' 2-1 FA Cup final triumph against Liverpool in 1977.

He has played for Millwall, Derby, QPR and FC Twente and managed Chester City, Hyde. He has also played in Finland, the USA and Canada where he managed the Novia Scotia Clippers in the Canadian Soccer League.

As a media commentator, Hill has worked with Sky Sports, BBC, ITV and Talk Radio. He lives with his wife Claire in Mckinney, Texas, where he owns and runs Texas-based club United FC

< Back to Columnists