When Clint Hill took to the field to face Sheffield Wednesday at Brunton Park early in January it marked a remarkable 650th senior appearance of a career which has spanned just over 20 years and seen him play in the top-flight in both England and Scotland.
Hill, 39, has played a huge part in helping United to become very difficult to break down, particularly since the turn of the year, and he admitted that despite still being at the top of his game it felt like only yesterday when he first took to the pitch to make his debut.
“I can still remember my league debut, which was at Nottingham Forest [October 1997, playing for Tranmere Rovers],” he said. “I played against Pierre Van Hooijdonk and Kevin Campbell who were in what was a really good Forest team at the time.
“I think we managed to nick a 2-2 draw. I can remember the coach journey to the game, John Aldridge was the manager, and when we got to the hotel he told me to go in the bar and have a couple of pints to relax. You wouldn’t get that these days! It felt weird, but he was trying to take the nerves out of the situation.”
“That period under John Aldridge was key to my career,” he confirmed. “Being completely honest, I was hard work in terms of discipline. Not off the pitch, but on it. I was too anxious and eager, I flew into tackles that I shouldn’t have done, and I had a lot of disciplinary issues.
“For him to stick by me and show that trust and patience with me was a big factor in me staying in the game, to be honest. I certainly did test him at times, so I’ve got a lot to thank him for.”
“I actually did some counselling while I was at Tranmere because of those disciplinary issues,” he revealed. “John Aldridge suggested I should go and speak to a sports psychologist and see if they could help me out. We spoke, and we tried to visualise different situations and we talked about what I was seeing when I was going into tackles, and things like that.
“I think it probably did help, to an extent, but it still festered in me at other times. I think some players need that little bit of fire in your belly. Generally, footballers don’t want to show any weaknesses, but I took the advice on how to calm down on board and I gave it a go.
“It wasn’t an anger thing, I just didn’t want to lose. I didn’t want to lose a header, or a tackle, and it did boil over when things weren’t going right for me. If I was speaking to myself, knowing what I do now, I think I would tell myself to be calmer in those first few years of my career.
“I don’t really know what it was, I was just so eager and excited. I just wanted to do well for the club because they’d shown so much faith in me. I came through the system at Tranmere and I think all of that boiled over at times. I wouldn’t want to change that now, even though it was quite embarrassing at times.”
“The sports psychologist isn’t something I’ve used again since then,” he confirmed. “I’ve always been self-critical anyway, so I don’t need anybody to tell me I’ve played badly or that I’ve done well. I’m always fully aware of how well I’ve performed.”
“I’ve obviously come on a long way from those days and there is a sense of pride in reaching 650 games,” he admitted. “Quite how it’s crept up on me I’ll never know! When you get to 500 you think of that as a big milestone in most people’s career, and if you get to that you’ve done really well.
“Anything over that is a bonus. To get to 650 is a great achievement, but I read through an interview with the gaffer and he got something like 830, so I’ve still got a long way to go!
“When I was coming up to 500 I was keeping an eye on it, but I had no idea I was at 650 until you [United’s media team] told me a few weeks ago. To get there is brilliant. When I do finish and look back on it, I’m sure I’ll be prouder of it and look at it in a different light than I am now.”
“I got some nice messages from people I’ve played with when the graphic went out about it being my 650th appearance,” he added. “It’s a good thing, of course it is, but there’s still something in me which says, ‘who cares, just get on with it and go and do something else’.
“I’ve never really stood still and admired anything in my career. That will probably come when I finish, and I can afford myself five minutes to relax!
“I always think about what comes next. I never thought I would get to this age and still play on a regular basis, so that’s a bonus. Everyone I speak to tells me to keep playing for as long as I can and that’s what in my head at the moment.
“I think my wife wants me to retire, so I’ll keep my boots away from her, just so she can’t burn them! I think I’m just going to keep going for as long as I can, to a certain extent. If it stops feeling right, then that will be the point it will probably have to stop completely.”
Having played at the top-level north and south of the border, and with and against some of the best players in the game, even he eventually had to agree that his latest landmark was indeed a fantastic achievement.
“When you look back I’ve been on an incredible journey,” he conceded. “I’ve played in most of the leagues in England, and I’ve also been to Scotland and played for one of the biggest clubs in world football.
“It’s been some achievement, but I don’t like sitting here and thinking about it because I think that’s a weakness. I still want to keep playing, but I’ll sit down in a pub one day and think ‘you’ve done alright pal’.
“I’ve had a lot of doubters and critics throughout my career, and I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but to stay in this game for as long as I have, and to achieve the things I have, is a great testament to your mentality and your self-belief.”
But what else goes in to making your way, and forging your path, in the beautiful game?
“The gaffer [Keith Curle] often says that I just do the simple things and I think thats a fair snapshot of my career,” he said. “I’ve always tried to do the things I’m good at and stay away from the things I’m not so good at.
“I think I realised early in my career what I can do and what I can’t do. I’ve tried to stick with those principles throughout, and it’s taken me to some places I never thought I would get to.
“I’ve always put pressure on myself from a young age and never allowed myself to feel comfortable, even if I had a three or four-year contract. There was always a pressure to go out there and perform to make sure I kept my place in the team.
“That’s probably down to the upbringing I had from my family and the outstanding education I had at Tranmere. I watched all the older players there and looked for the things I had to do to get into their first team, and that has put me in good stead.
“All I would say to anyone starting out in this career is, no matter what you do, give it everything you’ve got. Make sure you have an outstanding attitude to everything you do. The places an outstanding attitude can take you are remarkable.
“That is the one big thing, but it’s such an easy thing as well. You don’t need to be technically brilliant, but if you have an outstanding attitude you can definitely go places.
“I also think it’s important to do the things you’re good at. If you stick to those things, I can’t see you failing. The amount of players you see who try to do too much on the ball, or something they aren’t very good at, and it just doesn’t shine them in a positive light.
“If you stick to the things which make you a good player, I’m pretty sure you’ll have a prolonged career.”
In the second part of our interview with Clint Hill, on the official website on Saturday morning, we’ll be looking more at a playing career which has seen him create history and take part in some massive games and occasions.
Click HERE to watch an interview with Clint Hill on iFollow United now.