D3D4 Carlisle United Correspondent Nathan Ridley looks at the importance of Clint Hill for the Cumbrians as they attempt to reach the League Two play-offs…
When Clint Hill first arrived at Carlisle United to train with the first team, the speculation surrounding his possible contract signing was largely sceptical. Although, when public noise was made by Keith Curle, a move certainly seemed on the cards as the two had worked together at both Crystal Palace and QPR almost a decade ago. That lead to his signing in mid-September on a short-team contract, which has since been extended to the end of the season; thus showing in itself how impactful the 39 year-old centre-back has been.
Arriving as a free agent, his cult following gathered at Rangers – mostly down to his old-school attitude and scoring a late equaliser at Celtic in the Old Firm Derby – saw him greeted with heavy press even though he had been in and out of Cumbria for a while. A reserve match at Penrith saw him prove his fitness & refined leadership skills and was signed for and selected in the away game at Crewe Alexandra, forcing Mark Ellis out of the side (and eventually on loan) in which he helped keep a clean sheet in a 0-5 hammering.
Since then, the constant defensive woes that have plagued the Cumbrians for years seem to have improved for the most part and in the few rare games Hill hasn’t been at his best, it has shown. A game-winning goal away at Grimsby Town days before that contract extension and a 4-0 thrashing of Yeovil Town means his status as the club’s most influential player in the eyes of most fans is hard to argue with.
Relying on someone who was well into his career before some of the current Carlisle squad were even born sounds ludicrous if you really think about it. Nevertheless, his seasoned style and knowing his limitations is what gets him by. The first thing that benefits the team is his preference to play on his left foot. That has helped tenfold when building a sustainable partnership with Gary Liddle next to him. The raw defending Hill shows is also something of importance as Liddle is a clear ball-playing centre-back and so is Tom Parkes. The roaming the two potential partners have with the ball at their feet is all due to the solidity of the Tranmere Rovers youth product. When in a three-man defensive unit, he sits in the centre and all his abilities are amplified, naturally, as Liddle and Parkes split either side of him which has been successful in the two FA Cup games so far. That also allows for Hill not to be caught out much with pace, something he lacks at times. His reading of the game is second to no one in League 2 and he is rarely taken by surprise. It’s expected of such an old player to know the game well but this man knows it inside and out every single time he steps on the field he exudes confidence.
In terms of game management, a trademark of the Huyton-born man is a little shove of his man before the ball arrives into their area, thus allowing Hill to gain the upper hand whilst the referee sees very little. In addition to that, a little chat (or even confrontation) with his man when readying for a set piece seems to distract them, which again shows his nous. When attempting to win a header and seeing an opportunity to win a foul from it after being nudged from behind, a star-fish like pose on the ground is commonly adopted to signal to the referee he has been fully whipped out. Further to this, Hill is often first over to the referee in order to gain decisions from the officials. As well as these, the tactical foul when it is just about his team’s best option is almost always perfectly executed. Other than the pace, the only possible downside to relying on Hill is his fitness. It’s marvellous for his age but at times he has understandably looked jaded which totally knocks him off his game as his mental awareness is what allows him to be so proactive.
The one thing that the fans have noticed most from Hill even with all this, is that his communication is exemplary. By firstly taking expectation off captain Danny Grainger to be the real vocal man in both the dressing room & on the pitch has improved the squad. His cool head and realist attitude means there is someone else to take charge when things both on and off the pitch need to be addressed. Moreover, allowing less pressure to be on Liddle as an experienced man at the back, means that the team looks far more relaxed with his presence. The effect of that seen in Liddle, Parkes, Luke Joyce and even ever-improving goalkeeper Jack Bonham has been staggering. When on the pitch, each of those men looks to have a weight off their shoulders with Hill being their platform to go off both mentally and physically. Playing in the Premier League for numerous campaigns commands respect too and it’s easy to observe his experience being well appreciated by the squad.
Furthermore, his eagerness to learn more about the game through formal communication & tactical studies, and desire to interact with a huge number of fans from previous clubs, is all seen on his Twitter account interestingly enough.
Maximum application through thick and thin is all his manager Curle and the Brunton Park faithful ask for, and the seasoned pro seems to be (unsurprisingly) happy to oblige.
A man of many talents but at his core a traditional footballer, Hill may be the saving grace of this season for the blues if promotion is achieved. As a prime example of a true professional, his time at the club will forever be savoured if it continues in the same vein. No wonder so many fans have adored him over the years.