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INTERVIEW: One thing I've learned is to keep a level head

Clint Hill on career highlights, family and keeping your focus

3 February 2018

Defender Clint Hill’s 650-plus game career has taken him through a learning curve which saw him discover as much about himself as he did about the game, in his early years with Tranmere, to becoming the oldest player to score in an Old Firm Derby when he bagged the equaliser for Rangers in one of the world’s biggest fixtures in March last year.

Add to that a sending off at Wembley during a cup final [his fourth red card of that particular season] when he chopped Leicester City’s Emile Heskey to the floor, and being on the pitch when Sergio Aguero notched possibly the most significant Premier League goal ever, and you can see that there will be more than just a few stories to tell once the boots have finally been hung on the peg for the very last time.

“It hasn’t all been plain sailing, when I look back,” he said. “I think the mental strength I’ve needed to show throughout my career came from my upbringing.

“My mum and dad were very working class, we didn’t have much money, so they worked hard for everything we got. I could see that when I was a kid. They instilled those values into me and my sister, and I’ve kept that throughout my career.”

“Being at Tranmere as a young boy was really good for me, because it was a very hard environment,” he added. “There were a lot of Liverpool based players there who were very streetwise.

“The jobs we used to do there made you into a character. That also instilled a lot of good values into me. I definitely think a lot of that has been lost with the way youth teams and rules about jobs and things have gone.

“Look, the academy system is great, it’s played a big part in bringing through technically good players. But the danger is I think they’ve taken away the character and mental strength and attitude to succeed.

“That can definitely be questioned. I think we need to find a middle ground between an academy and that little bit of streetwise stuff we had. That’s what gives you the extra edge.”

One of his regrets from what has been an impressive career was that sending off underneath the famous Wembley twin towers during the February 2000 Worthington Cup Final.

“I think you’ll always look back and think about what you could have done differently in different situations,” he admitted. “Wembley was horrible. That was a hard lesson for me.

“It was the League Cup final for Tranmere against Leicester and I picked up that red card. I look back on it now as something which is part of growing up and part of life. I think I was only 21 at the time.

“I think it made me a better person having been through that experience. However, it’s still the one game that if I could go back to it I would want to do it all over again. My whole family were there, and I had a lot of regrets over not being able to walk up the old steps.

“I don’t even think I would want to change the result, just the decision I’d made and the way I handled things. I would have done it differently, if I could, and that might have meant the result did change. I probably wasn’t in the right frame of mind to handle the occasion. I probably hyped myself up a bit too much.”

But has he ever been in a position where he completely fell out of love with the game?

“I think I did fall out of love with the game when I was at Stoke, to be honest,” he revealed. “I had a hell of a lot of injuries. I did my cruciate just as I came back from a broken leg, and that was really hard.

“I think I only played 80 games in three or four years and that really did affect me. You have to deal with it, that’s all you can do, and I think I’ve shown that mental strength you have to have to survive in this industry. Those failings have made me the person I am, and they’ve given me the resilience to carry on.”

A lifeline was thrown his way during those darker days at the Britannia Stadium when a certain Mr Curle popped along to watch a reserve game, with Crystal Palace on the look-out for a new central defender at the time.

“The gaffer scouted me for Palace and he still jokes about it now,” he said. “He went back to Neil Warnock and asked him if he was sure he wanted me. He says he resurrected my career … and who am I to argue!

“Going down to Palace with them two was a breath of fresh air for me. It gave me the love for the game back and a lot of confidence. They played me, which was very important after the four years I’d had previously. Working with Keith and Neil for three years was brilliant, and it was obviously a big factor in me coming here.

“They took a chance on me at Palace because my injury record wasn’t great, and my playing record wasn’t great. They took a big chance on me and, at that time, I felt I owed them a lot. I think I played around 130 games during my time there and I really wanted to repay that faith they’d shown in me.”

“When I really think about it, that move to Palace put me out of my comfort zone and opened the door to so many things. It was a personal gamble because I moved down to London just after I’d had a child. I didn’t settle there for three months, I was living in hotels and things like that, and I didn’t really think I’d enjoy it.

“It ended up being an unbelievable experience. To play in a team with such character and with a great manager was really good for me. I learned so much from it and it kicked me on to another level.”

His next move was to follow the management pair to Loftus Road and an eventual step up to top flight football.

“We went to QPR together and got promotion to the Premier League, so I’ve got a lot of respect for the gaffer and Neil for what they’ve given me,” he commented. “That’s why I wanted to come here, to try and help Keith out as much as I could.

“During my time in London I played with Shaun Derry, and he is one of the best players I’ve played with in terms of being a natural leader. He’s one you would go to the trenches with.

“The club was looking to do whatever it could to stay in the Premier League so it was a bit like a revolving door, and I met some really daft people. I think we counted one day and got up to something like 100 players who had been in and out.

“There were so many negatives, but also a few positives in that era. I’ve played with some brilliant characters, far too many to mention individually, in fact.”

So how different was it to play games against some of the top teams and players in the world compared to Championship level and the scramble to make it to the promised land.

“The Premier League is hard,” he stated. “It’s an outstanding league and it’s deadly and clinical. That’s one of the things I’ve noticed the higher and lower I’ve played. In the Premier League they only need half a sniff and it’s a goal. I found that out to my cost at times.

“I played against Luis Suarez and he absolutely tore me to pieces during one game at QPR, he was fantastic. I went home absolutely devastated, thinking I needed to hang my boots up. A few days later I was able to think about it more - it was Luis Suarez and he’d done that to some world class defenders, so I needed to give myself a bit of a breather.

“There have been plenty of games like that. One week you can be outstanding and the next you can be terrible. One thing I’ve learned is to try and keep a level head on everything. When things are going really good, you can’t get carried away, and when things are going really bad, you can’t get too disappointed.”

So, on to that famous game in May 2012 where Manchester City needed to win to secure the title and QPR needed a victory, or for results to go their way, to maintain their top-flight status.

“I was devastated when that Aguero goal went in with what we all thought was the last kick of the game,” he admitted. “As a back four and the goalkeeper, we didn’t know QPR were safe. Eventually the message fed across from the front men to the midfielders that the game had finished at Stoke, and it didn’t matter what the result was against Man City.

“It’s obviously one of the biggest goals in the history of the Premier League, but if you look at me I think I’m banging the floor because I thought he’d just won the Premier League and sent us down at the same time.

“I think it was Shaun Wright-Phillips who came up to me and told me not to worry, because we’d stayed up about five minutes earlier. It would have been nice for them to let us know! As defenders we had Balotelli, Dzeko, Aguero, Tevez and Silva buzzing around us, so we didn’t have time to think of anything else.”

And then there’s the triple-decker record of being the oldest player to score in the SPL and also the oldest to play and score in an Old Firm Derby.

“Scoring a late equaliser against Celtic for Rangers was absolute madness,” he told us. “It was a great run from myself and I showed great anticipation to feed off the goalkeeper!

“As I was running up to it I knew I just had to make half decent contact and it would go in. I think it came off my shin in the end, but it went in the back of the net and that’s all that matters.

“The noise in the background was deafening. You can see one of the ball-girls giving me a bit of stick in the video, which is always nice. I said after the game that it was only a point, and a club the size of Rangers doesn’t really celebrate points.

“But, at the time, it was much needed and it’s definitely one of the high points in my career. To play and score in such a big game was great. I broke a few records when I was up there, but I don’t think they were anything outstanding, I think they were all about just generally being old.

“We now have Rangers fans coming down to our games, which is unbelievable. What a club to play for. You only really understand that when you step in the front doors at Ibrox and realise what a great club it is.

“The fans have backed them through thick and thin, and for them to come down here to watch me is unbelievable. The support they show for players, past and present, is unrivalled. I always try and show my appreciation when they come down here and I pop up to the restaurant and say thank you.”

With plenty to be proud of from an extremely illustrious career, he left his final words as a thank you to his family, in particular his father, who is currently fighting a serious illness.

“Family are important - mine have been with me all the way - and my dad has always been someone I’ve looked up to,” he said. “He certainly instilled a lot of traits in me that I’ve carried on into my own fatherhood with my kids.

“Hard work, always being polite and humble, just general things like that which a lot of people take for granted these days. It sounds so easy but if you stick to those things I’m sure you’ll do well in whatever job you’re in.

“My dad and my uncles used to play football, but just locally. My grandad was a wrestler, which is maybe where I got my anger from. He used to wear the masks and everything and fight people like Big Daddy back in the day. I never really got to meet him, but we often talk about that when his name crops up.

“My dad is brilliant, and Keith and the club have been fantastic with me in recent weeks. He hasn’t been well but he’s fighting, and that’s typical of him. It says a lot about the club that they put the needs of my family before their own, and I’ll always be grateful for that.”

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