James Hill swaps cake for shake on big day for new Hearts defender - and why ex-Rangers player was so vital for him
While it wasn’t the way most lads his age would choose to recognise such a personal landmark, the on-loan defender considers Tuesday’s lack of revelry the perfect gift to himself. “Yeah, I spent my 21st birthday in the hotel, having dinner on my own,” Hill said. “Then I came into the gym as well. It was nice. These are the sacrifices you have to make as a footballer. I want to get to the top and, coming here, I’ve got to try and keep it professional. I can’t be having birthday cake in my room. It should be a protein shake!”
On loan from Bournemouth until the end of the season, the England Under-21 centre-back is a driven individual who refuses to downplay his desire for regular competitive game time in front of decent crowds before heading back to Dean Court intent on making his mark on the English top flight. “It will be a massive step in moving forward with my career and trying to reach the highest level possible,” added the player Bournemouth reportedly signed for over £1m last winter after an early breakthrough at Fleetwood. “There were plenty of other clubs [interested in signing him] but this stood out to me.”
Familiar with a couple of players already on Hearts’ books, others helped inform his decision or validate it. “Yeah, obviously we [Fleetwood] had Harry Souttar, whose brother was here and is at Rangers now, and Ryan Christie [a Bournemouth team-mate] was talking to me before I came here, saying how much I would enjoy it and develop. So hopefully I can make an impression then go back to Bournemouth and give myself a fighting chance for the starting XI
“I am really close with Robert Snodgrass and Barrie McKay as well. Barrie was at Fleetwood with me after coming on loan, and he made a massive difference for us. We got to 14th, I think, with him in the side. It’s nice to come in and see some familiar faces. I was watching lots of clips of them playing and I really enjoy the style of play and think that’s something I can add to. That’s why I was really looking forward to coming here.”
Son of the former Bristol Rovers, Preston North End and Sheffield United defender Matt, Hill has been brought in to generate competition for places in the backline, following Craig Halkett’s season-ending injury. A product of the Fleetwood academy, he became the club’s youngest ever debutant, aged just 16, having impressed then manager Joey Barton and while the former Rangers midfielder has been accused of under-estimating the Scottish Premiership, the grounding he gave Hill in those early days will ensure the newcomer doesn’t make the same mistake.
“He was really tough but how tough he was on me at times, the way he played and the standards he set in training are really what started me off,” revealed Hill. “As a youngster, all I kept thinking was he’s the kind of manager who will go in, look at the first-team players and say: ‘Listen, I’m taking your shirt’. By the time pre-season finished, I was making my debut against 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 of that.
“But, 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 and he still messages me, saying: ‘How are you getting on?’ The way he set that team up, I learned a lot from him. Playing at such a young age, coming out of high school straight into first-team football, you have to adapt really quickly. It is a lot more physical and playing centre-half against some top strikers, like Paddy Madden, I had to adapt really quickly. That was massive for me, growing up, and that’s what gives me a little bit of an edge over some other boys my age. I’ve got experience, even though I’ve not played that long.”
Hill’s attributes include communication and organisational skills, his aggression and tackling ability as well as a potent long-throw, but he also cites a strong mentality, which will come in handy at Hearts. That was honed at Fleetwood, although he was fortunate to escape some of the most excessive Barton tactics.
“There was something called Gaffer’s Day,” he explained. “I never actually took part in it because I was too young but, basically, you run and run 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. It was just relentless. People were carrying objects, doing laps of the full complex. There were lads almost passing out, they were white, like ghosts. But you had to do what the gaffer told you to do and 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. He built that into the team, to be at it 100 per cent and be relentless. If you ask anyone, I keep my standards the same at all times. I go into a Under-23 match like I’m going into a professional game. Even in training. You’ve got to keep your standards the same because if you let them drop, you are not getting in the team because there are other people competing for your shirt.”