Hearts' ace loanee James Hill on stepping out of his dad's shadow, inspirational talk with Joey Barton and initial Tynecastle fears
On the one hand, you have constant access to one of the best teachers around as the sport consumes the developmental part of your life. There’s also the theory of talent being handed down genetically. On the other hand, it comes with it an extra degree of pressure to live up to the family name or perhaps even surpass it.
That’s the ambition Hearts loanee James Hill holds as he seeks to forage his own path in the professional game after dad Matty made it to the highest level in England with hundreds of career appearances under his belt.
“I idolised my dad to a point I didn’t support a team or watch other footballers. I wanted to be a footballer because of him,” said the incredibly impressive 21-year-old. “But I’m a massive competitor, I hate getting beat.
“As soon as I got my first sniff of first team at Fleetwood Town I wanted to beat dad. He made his debut at 18, I made mine at 16. I wanted to see how many more appearances I could get than him at this age. I’ve beaten him so far. He got schoolboys but I’ve got U20 and now U21.
“But he’s played in the Premier League and I’ve not. He’s made over 500 appearances. I’ve not done that.”
Such single-mindedness is exactly what’s required to make it to the top of any profession, particularly in the cut-throat world of football. Hill is not interested in settling. That’s why he’s at Tynecastle on loan from Bournemouth after he found his first-team opportunities had vanished following a £1 million move from Fleetwood that summer.
Prior to his departure to England’s south coast, he was given some words of wisdom by former manager Joey Barton, who played for several years in the English Premier League and was capped by England.
“You can never be satisfied, can you? I have actually heard that when an animal eats and become satisfied that is when it is vulnerable and it could be attacked because it is in that state of relaxation,” said Hill.
“I actually spoke to Joey Barton and he asked ‘when have you made it?’ I thought it was when I signing the pro forms at 17. But he was like no, you’ve not made it until you made so many experiences. Then, how many can you get? How many youth caps can you get? Could I move on from Fleetwood? Could I outgrow the club and move onto the Championship or further? After that can you get consistency and then move to the Premier League or the England first team, then become one of the main stars?
“He told me that when I’m 45 then he could ring me up and say, ‘flippin’ eck, you’re retired now?’ And I will say, ‘yeah, the knees are gone’. And then he will say ‘now you’ve made it, because you have satisfied your goals and you will be able to look back happy, knowing you’ve done everything you possibly could and every sacrifice was made to do that so job’s a good un’."
The inspirational quotes, the footballing father, the expressed ambition to play for England at the next World Cup; you’d be forgiven for thinking Hill was just another footballer with ideas too big for his station; someone who believes his own hype.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In a completely engaging 20-minute chat with the press prior to Sunday’s match with Motherwell, the new Hearts favourite also opened up on the vulnerabilities he felt coming to the Scottish Premiership, a league often derided for its quality down south.
“It does help coming into a winning team, but then it doesn't at the same time because as a youngster there are a lot of thoughts going through your mind. I haven't played in a while so I'm thinking 'do I actually have the ability to come into this team?' I know I'm at a Premier League club, but can I actually come into this team and improve it and not actually drop off from where they are?” he said, remembering his doubts.
“It's a lot of pressure. There are massive crowds. I'm coming into a league that, to me, is pretty unknown. I've been studying a lot, reading more about different teams, analysing different players before games. I think that now that I have a better understanding it's been amazing for me.
“I'm really, really enjoying it and the job is not done yet.”
James isn’t the only younger Hill to dream of making it big in the world of football. His younger brother Tyler is currently in the under-17 and under-18s sides for Championship outfit Blackpool. Just like James and his father, there is both a strong bond between James and Tyler and the determination to outdo what the older Hill has achieved.
“Imagine how hard it is for him,” James said of his younger sibling. “I’m looking at him and thinking I’ve been gunning for Dad and beating Dad, and he’s now got to try to beat me. And I actually want him to.
“I’ll try to help him as much as possible. He came to mine for Christmas and he had played Stoke in the FA Youth Cup, and he said every time he was getting on the ball he was losing it and he couldn’t really see passing options. I sat down with him and went through all his clips and said where he needed to get better. After that he went back and scored three goals on the bounce.
“Family’s massive and I don’t get to see him that much when I get to see him doing well and chasing dreams it’s great. Dad’s out of that now but me and my brother are both pursuing a dream and trying to make him proud.”