New Hearts defender James Hill reveals Joey Barton torture, a Champions League pathway and why he chose No.72

You can imagine enjoying a right good laugh on a night out with James Hill. Tales of footballing and non-footballing escapades roll off his Lancashire tongue like a polished comedian. He certainly doesn’t sound or act like an inexperienced 21-year-old.

Merely days into a new loan at Hearts, he has already made an impression since arriving from parent club Bournemouth. It’s not all jokes and anecdotes, either. There is serious motivation within a young centre-back who aspires to become an English Premier League regular and speaks of reaching the Champions League. He has grown up fast since the colourful Joey Barton granted him a senior debut at Fleetwood Town aged 16.

Bournemouth paid more than £1million to take Hill south last year and he is now in Edinburgh for much-needed game time. He turned 21 on Tuesday but admirably avoided any revelry. Dinner was eaten alone in his hotel before a gym session. “These are the sacrifices you have to make as a footballer,” he says. “I want to get to the top and, coming here, I’ve got to try and keep it professional. I can’t be having a birthday cake in my room. It’s a protein shake. Training was really good and I’m really looking forward to Friday.”

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A Hearts debut under the Tynecastle Park floodlights against St Mirren is his primary target and he unapologetically paints himself as the new boy trying to steal someone’s jersey. In that regard, Barton’s influence remains strong five years since that debut. “That was really tough but how tough he was on me at times, the way he played and the standards he set in training, is really what started me off,” explains Hill. “He was that kind of person who went into training every day and said: ‘Right, I’m going to take your shirt.’ As a youngster, that was all I kept thinking.

“By the time pre-season finished, I was making my debut at Leicester at the King Power, coming off the bench with 30 minutes to go. We were 4-0 down at the time, but that was incredible for me and I wanted more. I was so hungry to get more. He was tough. If you mess up a passing drill, you are walking back over to the under-18s. But that’s what I loved. Now he still messages me, saying: ‘How are you getting on?’ The way he set that team up, when we got to the play-offs, it was such a strong team. I learned a lot from him.”

Not least how to master the role of hard taskmaster. “There was something called ‘Gaffer’s Day’. I never actually took part in it. I was too young,” smirks Hill. “Basically, you keep running and running all day. He’s ringing a bell, coming into the changing room and saying: ‘Come on, get out, get on the line,’ and stuff like that. People were carrying objects, doing laps of the full complex. Honestly, it was relentless. There were lads almost passing out. They were white in the face like ghosts.”

It’s hard not to smile at the mental vision Hill creates, but again there is a serious side to it all. “You had to do what the gaffer told you to do, but that season it got us to the play-offs. The mindset from the start was: ‘No matter how hard it gets, we can get through it.’ That’s the mindset you’ve got to have. You’ve got to be able to keep going when you are tired. It’s 90 minutes at the end of the day. So, as tired as you’re going to get, you will be resting afterwards. That’s the mindset he built in that football team, to be at it 100 per cent and be relentless at all times.”

The approach resonated and stuck with the young Hill, who lists endeavour as one of his own best attributes. He will need plenty of it for the unforgiving cinch Premiership and gives the impression of a player who will relish the challenge. “Wanting to win games, wanting to get hold of the ball, wanting to win it back as soon as possible,” he says. “Communicating as well. I think I’m really good at communicating and organising a team from the back, even though I’m young. I don’t feel like the older people should take ownership of trying to organise a team. Everyone can do it. Everyone has got to be a leader in order to pull in the same direction. That’s one of my key strengths. Hopefully I will add more to my game the longer I stay here.”

New Hearts loan signing James Hill could make his debut against St Mirren.

As a player, Barton famously turned up at Rangers in 2016 claiming he would become the best player in Scotland. He was suspended by the Glasgow club following a training ground altercation with Andy Halliday – now Hill’s Hearts team-mate – and released after only eight appearances. Hill won’t make the mistake of underestimating Scottish football.

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“No. I’m used to League One football. I know nothing else,” he says. “If you ask anyone, I go into an under-23 match like I’m going into a professional game. I will keep my standards high and I won’t underestimate who I’m playing against.

“It’s the business end of the season. This is where games matter. Three points is all you see on a Saturday. I know I’m a young lad and it’s all about development, but in my head, while you’ve got to develop along the way, it’s three points at the end of the day. You’ve got to win. This is one of the reasons why I picked this football club. If you can deal with that pressure now, when you go on to play at higher level in the future, say if I make it to the Champions League, it’s going to be easier to deal with. Coming into this part of the season, it’s crucial that I learn quickly, add to the team and get three points every game.”

If Hearts end up being a stepping stone to the Champions League, Hill’s international prospects will have been seriously enhanced as well. He is an England Under-21 cap who wants to play at the top level under national coach Gareth Southgate. “When you see Southgate he comes and says ‘hi’ when you’re walking about the place. But mainly it’s the Under-21s. I’ve played for the 20s and I got the call to the Under-21s in the summer and I enjoyed it.

"There’s a lot of talented boys who are playing in the Premier League just now and I’m looking at them and it gives me even more hunger. I want to be doing the same as them and I feel like I can be doing that. I do think making this step into this league gives me a little opportunity to challenge for my spot in the [Bournemouth] team.”

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He makes the jump into the maroon No.72 shirt without a second thought, even if it is not exactly synonymous with centre-halves. “No, it was just a number that was standing out for me and I thought it looked nice on my back.” He speaks confidently and boldly enough to pull it off. If he plays with the same authority, Hearts will reap the rewards of this particular loan agreement.