When Rangers went out in the summer and added a trio of big names in Joey Barton, Clint Hill and Niko Kranjcar, there was a degree of risk associated with the deals. Each of them was into his 30s and Scottish football’s history has been littered with ageing English stars who have crossed the border and received a massive culture shock. Therefore, it was expected at least one of the threesome would fail. To put it bluntly, most thought it would be Hill.
He was the oldest of the trio – turning 38 in October – and seemed to fit Rangers’ system the least. Never someone blessed with great pace, how would his ageing legs cope in a high defensive line with attacking full-backs that often exposed those in the centre? Very well, as it turns out.
Hill has been one of Rangers’ most consistent performers this season and though the physical demands of the Scottish Premiership usually prohibit him from playing three times in one week, a restriction that will likely be lifted this week with St Johnstone and Celtic quickly following Saturday’s win over Inverness, he has emerged as the first-choice centre-back for the Ibrox side.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. He sat on the sidelines watching on during the first Old Firm contest of the season after being burned for pace by Kris Boyd, an accusation no defender should have thrown at him, in the preceding 1-1 draw with Kilmarnock. The subsequent five-goal mauling at Celtic Park the following week meant Rangers had conceded nine goals through the opening five league games.
Since then they have tightened up considerably, losing another nine league goals but over the course of 14 matches, along with seven clean sheets. Hill has been at the heart of the defence for five of those, including Saturday’s 1-0 win over Inverness CT.
Rangers were far from their best against the Scottish Premiership’s bottom club, who were easily the better team at Ibrox. While Wes Foderingham was the hero of the show, the defence performed well later in the match as they refused to buckle when faced with a constant stream of Inverness pressure. Though the personnel has largely remained unchanged, it is a group that is getting stronger as the campaign goes on. Hill, who has been in his share of back-lines, puts the improvement down to the work that goes on behind the scenes.
“I have never been at a club when there is as much scrutiny and analysis, not from the media, but as a team,” said Hill.
“We do analyse ourselves a lot and every game we pick bits of the game we feel we can do better in and bits we are doing well. We are constantly improving as a team every day. Just looking at the things you can improve on and practising that in training.
“At the minute we are sitting second and one of the objectives this season is to get this club back to where it belongs and into Europe. Hopefully we can reach that objective but there is a long way to go this season and a lot of good teams who want to do the same thing. We just need to try to maintain the same kind of form that we have shown in the last month.”
Fans are desperate for revenge when Celtic visit on Hogmanay, but the momentum built up by the four-game winning streak could easily be dashed if Rangers treat St Johnstone with anything other than the utmost respect when the sides battle at McDiarmid Park tomorrow.
Tommy Wright has faced off against Mark Warburton twice since the Englishman arrived at Ibrox and on each occasion he has managed to avoid defeat, winning one and drawing the other from two games in Glasgow.
With the media circus that precedes and follows any Old Firm contest, it would be an understandable error if one or two players look beyond the match at the chance for revenge on Saturday.
Hill, however, insists that in his mind there will be little chance of that, as he makes a conscious effort to distance himself from the daily scrutiny of being a Rangers player.
“‘I don’t know if I’m a little bit different because of the age I am, but I can take myself away from it all,” he said. “I don’t buy the papers every day, I don’t look at what people are saying on Twitter or stuff like that.I don’t really get it every day.
“It’s a bubble – and if you are constantly looking at things on Twitter or social media or papers it can drain you. I have three kids as well. You have no chance of watching games or any normal TV or anything, so I’m quite happy with that.”.