Pandemic management journey puts ex-Wolves man Matt Hill on a steep learning curve

Life begins at 40.

Matt Hill (Photo: Wendy Hill)
Matt Hill (Photo: Wendy Hill)

For Matt Hill that means managerial life, as he steps onto the first rung of what he hopes will be a long and successful ladder over the coming years.

The popular former defender, who counts Wolves and Saturday’s opponents Sheffield United among two of the clubs he represented with much distinction during a lengthy playing career, is now the manager at Stafford Rangers, who occupy the seventh tier of English football in the Northern Premier League.

Hill first moved to Marston Road as a player when former Bristol City team-mate Alex Meechan joined the management team in early 2019, but Meechan was then released from his contract a year ago when Rangers earned a reprieve whilst sitting bottom with the season declared null and void due to the pandemic.

Hill then stepped up as assistant to new boss Jody Banim, before a series of poor results saw him relieved of his duties last October, with the former Wolves man asked to take the job on an interim basis, and then permanently.

But then, after just two games in the hotseat, including a penalty shootout defeat at St Ives Town in the FA Trophy, lockdown returned, and the season was curtailed.

So for Hill, who celebrated his 40th milestone at the end of last month, introduction to management has so far taken the form of many months of football inactivity, coupled with building a squad for when hostilities hopefully resume in August.

Not perhaps your normal route from dressing room to dugout!

“It has been quite a natural transition for me from player to manager,” Hill explains.

“When I first came to Stafford it was to link up with Alex and I still felt I could contribute and still wanted to play.

“We stayed up that year, and won the Staffordshire Senior Cup which was nice, and then when Alex unfortunately moved on and I linked up with Jody, it was more about the coaching side.

“I was still registered as a player, but if I could help it I wouldn’t be playing – keeping my registration was probably just a way of not completely letting go as I knew how much I would miss it!

“I still enjoyed playing all the way through but it was the recovery that was the problem. A day to recover? More like three or four and that was just no fun anymore.

“Unfortunately Jody then moved on as well and I was asked to take over on an interim basis and then permanently.

“It did offer a great opportunity to step up and get my first management experience at a really good club.

“I have been coaching the Under-15s and Under-16s at Blackpool Academy for a while now and have a grass roots development centre where I live in Preston which has been running for about five years.

“So I am growing all the time in my coaching development and am booked onto my ‘A’ licence this year.

“This is a new chapter for me in football now, and I am really looking forward to giving it a push and hopefully doing well.”

If this is a slightly unusual start to a first foray into management, it probably fits in well with Hill’s first introduction to the senior ranks of football as a player, some 22 years ago.

Hill had come through the ranks at his home town club of Bristol City, and his first team bow came in a match never to be forgotten by all those of a gold and black persuasion.

And not just for the football!

It was Colin Lee’s first game in caretaker charge having taken over from Mark McGhee. And it finished: Bristol City 1, Wolves 6.

But the headlines were hogged – excuse the pun – by a fracas which had absolutely nothing to do with the football.

“It as the day of the mascot fight between Wolfie and the Three Little Pigs,” Hill chuckles.

“I was on the bench as a 17-year-old and must have been one of the only ones in the stadium who completely missed it!

“I would have been warming up at half time but must have gone in to the toilet or something.

“When it comes to the game, as a young defender, coming on at 4-1 down with 20 minutes to go there probably wasn’t the same sort of pressure as if it had been goalless or we had been ahead.

“The game was pretty much done and so, even in defeat, I was able to enjoy the moment and it was a big honour to set foot on the pitch.

“That was the start for me really, that learning curve you face as a young lad coming through.

“You always need a bit of luck with managers having patience, because alongside the times I did well, I also made mistakes, and in that situation a manager could easily have decided to pull me straight out.

“At Bristol City for the majority of the time Danny Wilson was in charge and he was great in helping me grow and get better and feel more confident.

“As a Bristol boy, playing as many games as I did for City was a big honour.”

It was over 200 games chalked up in total at Ashton Gate, including claiming both Young Player and Player of the Year awards in the same season before then taking what was a step up to join Preston in the Championship.

Hill again excelled during three-and-a-half years at Deepdale, amassing another 100-plus appearances and landing another Player of the Year award.

That spell included being part of a Preston backline in the 2005/06 season which conceded just 30 goals, the best defensive record in Championship history.

Unfortunately there wasn’t quite enough at the other end to take a talented Preston side into the Premier League and what ended up being something of a play-off curse for Hill continued.

Having twice been part of a Bristol City team which failed to get out of the play-offs from League One after being relegated during the season of his debut, Hill played at the Millennium Stadium when Preston were beaten in the play-off final by West Ham and was an injured spectator when the Lilywhites were overcome by Leeds in the semi-finals the following season.

It was in the summer of 2008, that the call came from Wolves.

“It was a bit of a strange one really as Preston were looking for a striker and Stephen Elliott at Wolves had been identified,” Hill recalls.

“Then George (Elokobi) unfortunately picked up a bad injury for Wolves and they needed a left back so the two deals sort of went hand in hand.

“The manager at Preston said Wolves were in for me and that he didn’t want to let me go but wouldn’t stand in my way and that kind of made my decision really.

“Wolves are a big club, and I also knew Terry (Connor) who had been working under John Ward at Bristol City when I was there and I have always had a lot of respect for TC.

“Anyway, I think the swap deal had pretty much been sorted when I came down to watch Wolves play Nottingham Forest – the one where they absolutely hammered them in the first half and won 5-1.

“Well that was the game when Wardy (Stephen Ward) was put at left back for the first time which proved the catalyst to him changing position for the rest of his career, and he was on fire, as were the team.

“I remember looking on thinking, ‘what on earth am I doing here? Why am I needed?’

“The team were just relentless, I thought we were a fit group at Preston but the Wolves lads were so sharp, so athletic and had so much energy.”

Sadly for Hill, any hopes of challenging Ward for that left back berth, along with fellow new arrival George Friend, were hampered almost immediately by picking up a medial knee ligament injury in his first week of training.

And yet, by the time the end of the season arrived, with no need to worry about the play-offs this time as Wolves stormed to the Championship title, Hill had started 14 of the games to secure a winners’ medal, in which two particular spells stand out.

Firstly, after a run of just one win in 11 when Wolves were wobbling, he featured in the successive 1-0 away wins at Crystal Palace and Sheffield Wednesday that got the team back on track in the first week of March.

Matt Hill

And then, just a few weeks later, Hill, in his late twenties one of the more experienced members of the dressing room, started the exhilarating Easter double-headers against Southampton and Derby, where six points out of six catapulted Wolves to the brink of promotion.

“Every player will tell you they want to play more games, but after coming back from the injury and the team doing so well it was always going to be difficult to break in,” says Hill.

“I remember going back to Preston to watch the game there, when Lumes (Chris Iwelumo) got his hat trick, and for a long time the team were blowing everyone away with their pace and athleticism.

“But when I was called upon, it was great to step up and play a part and, particularly with the Palace and Sheffield Wednesday games, help get a bit of momentum going again.

“Towards the end, it was about getting over that finishing line, when the pressure cooker was rising, and if I played just a small part in that then I am very proud.

“They were such a great squad to be involved with at that time.

“There were a lot of younger players with so much hunger and determination such as Kights (Michael Kightly) and Matt Jarvis, and Sylvan (Ebanks-Blake) and Lumes banging in the goals.

“In midfield we had Karl Henry and David Jones, with a maturity and experience beyond their years, complete with all the in-depth conversations they used to have, and there was just a really good blend throughout the squad that worked together so well.”

And what Wolves did do for Hill, albeit fleetingly, was give him a very brief glimpse of what he had set out to achieve all those years ago - a taste of action in the Premier League.

He may only have made two appearances, the defeats at Blackburn and Manchester United – one of the ten team changes made by Mick McCarthy that night – but they will forever remain in the record books.

“I’d probably say both of those appearances came by default but who cares? It was an opportunity to play in the Premier League and that is the ambition of anyone when they start out in the game,” Hill explains.

“I had a brief look at it, and then came out, but no one can take it away from me.

“I do believe I should maybe have had one or two more chances to play but I will always be grateful for the opportunity, and proud in particular to have played for Wolves at Old Trafford.”

With Hill no longer expecting to feature, he felt a need for more regular football, and a loan move to QPR preceded a switch to Barnsley and then a small South Yorkshire step to join Saturday’s opponents for Wolves, the Blades.

Agonisingly, his stay at Bramall Lane included another couple more doses of League One play-off agony, not to mention an FA Cup run to the semi-finals which ended in defeat against Hull at Wembley.

Amid the disappointments however, Hill did particularly enjoy linking up with a couple of players who have since gone on to excel, not just at club level but also internationally.

“Sheffield United are another big club with a great fanbase but for me and the play-offs, it was always the bridesmaid once again,” recalls Hill.

“Again I felt like it was a team which really should have got promoted, but there were near-misses and we just couldn’t get over the line.

“In League One at the time it was another good platform for several players to come through, including Harry Maguire, and my old car-school buddy Conor Coady!

“Conor was on loan from Liverpool, so we would meet up to travel in, and as everyone knows he’s a great lad.

“He had a bit of learning to do at that stage, like we all do as young players, in that he was in and out of the team and coming up against bumps in the road.

“But he came through it really well and has done brilliantly and it is so good to see what he has gone on to achieve at Wolves and to play for England.”

If Coady was just setting off on his career, Hill, who also lined up alongside good pal and former Wolves team-mate Neill Collins at Bramall Lane, was heading towards his latter years, finishing with a stint at Tranmere – no play-offs this time – before moving into non-league with Bradford Park Avenue and Ashton United.

That brings us back to where we started, the here and now, with the switch to Stafford Rangers and what has since followed, that progress into management.

Obviously such a change carries challenges of its own, especially taking the step up at the same club where you have been a player, prompting a new and different dynamic with former team-mates.

But while Hill is well known as one of football’s good guys with an affable and personable nature, that shouldn’t detract from a fierce desire and determination to be forthright and make tough decisions when necessary.

Even going back to his time at Molineux, Hill’s was a voice that would speak up in team meetings when times or subject matter became delicate, and he knows there is certainly a need to be up front and single-minded now it is his name above the door.

“Unfortunately I have only had those two games in the dugout so far as the pandemic brought the season to a halt but I feel that I am ready for this opportunity,” Hill explains.

“Of course there is more learning to be done - you are always learning in football - and for me that includes making that step up from being a player.

“I think when you go through your career you are always picking up bits you see from managers and coaches and then regurgitating them later on, taking parts that you like and putting your own stamp on them.

“I know there is a ruthless edge to being a manager, I think back to Mick McCarthy and how strongly he led the team, whereas perhaps ‘TC’ was the coach who was there to help everyone out and be that link between players and manager.

“I really enjoy the coaching side in particular, but of course you can’t pick everybody in the team, and for me that is the difference as a manager now that I know I will need to be ruthless in making those decisions.

“Is a particular player, or group of players, going to be enough to take us where we want to go? Which players did we want to invite back for next season and which unfortunately do we need to let go? How can we persuade the players that we think will make us better to take the decision to join?

“It is a challenge I am really enjoying but of course it is very different working at a part-time club to being full time like I was as a player.

“Once the games get going again with the amount of fixtures we will have it might be that we only get a couple of hours on a Thursday night to do the coaching and work on things we want to improve.

“If you are winning that’s not so bad as you can pick up momentum to carry you through, but when you are struggling and want to really home in on specific areas that is a lot to cram in.”

Hill continues: “Whatever level of football you are working at, ultimately it is about putting together a group of players who have the right blend, the right camaraderie and then putting the pieces together so they can all work as one.

“One thing you always need to look for is the right attitude to work because while of course you need players with talent, the fundamentals of football are always the same in that you need to earn the right to play.

“Thinking back to Mick, for all the quality we had in that squad at the time, the last message he would often give when we were leaving the dressing room is that we all needed to kick, b****ck and bite and then we could play our football.

“Sometimes in the modern game it feels like there is a tendency to try to look good first and win second, focusing on how you look and playing it out from the back instead of perhaps aiming for more effective football which picks up results.

“That is where I think managers like Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis get tainted a little bit, and even Sean Dyche, who has done a fantastic job at Burnley.

“They are probably close to being labelled as a long ball team, but if you watch Burnley they will play direct when it is on but they also play some very good football.

“It is all about adapting, playing when you can, and if you think about where we are at Stafford, particularly with some of the pitches in this league, we will want to be playing our football but doing it in the opposition half!”

Hill speaks well with plenty of strong but measured enthusiasm, and has formulated some clearly defined ideas of how he wants his team to play, plans he can’t wait to put into practice when hopefully all levels of football resume in August.

In the meantime, planning for a return to action can also co-incide with keeping an eye on the next cab off the rank in terms of the family footballing dynasty!

In what is most definitely a talented family – Hill’s cousin Scott Golbourne is another promotion-winning former Wolves full back – son James, now 19, is forging his own path in the game as a defender with Fleetwood Town.

His debut actually came at 16, in an EFL tie at Leicester, and although it didn’t carry with it the shenanigans of Bristol City/Wolves all those years ago, there was a spot of drama in that Dad was away on a course and only discovered he had come on when viewing a twitter update!

There may be more Hill success not far around the corner as well.

Youngest son Tyler is one of the academy he is coaching at Blackpool, and has the same ambitions to follow in the family footsteps!

“It’s nice to be able to coach Tyler as I continue my own training and development, looking for that balance between coaching and fatherhood,” Hill explains.

“He is trying to gun for his brother, and then the pair of them are gunning for their Dad!

“It’s great for James to be getting his opportunities and he has come through a few bumps in the road already as we all have to do.

“Playing a few games, going back into the Under-23s, the manager changing, a lot has happened for James in a very short space of time.

“But he is in a good place at the moment, he has been in the team consistently now for 11 games or so, and once you start doing that, and can contribute as a defender to clean sheets, you can show that maturity and earn respect from the manager to keep playing – long may that continue!”

In terms of Hill’s own future, he knows he too is very much starting out on a new road as he tries to follow up a playing career that yielded almost 600 appearances across all four divisions.

All those experiences should certainly stand him in good stead, along with a strong and steadfast ambition to be the best he can be.

“I am hoping this is just the start,” he declares.

“As a player I always wanted to get to the highest level possible and while I wasn’t as good as some players, I had desire and commitment in abundance.

“I still have that now, and starting in non-league I have the determination to progress and get as high as I can in the coaching and managerial world.

“I am fortunate to have this great opportunity and platform at a really good club in Stafford Rangers, so I am really looking forward to things starting up again, and who knows where the journey might take me?”

If life does indeed begin at 40, Hill will be hoping for some exciting times ahead.

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