In the first ever ‘FTF Meets’ we sat down with former North End left back Matt Hill for an exclusive interview about his time in Lancashire playing in the Lilywhite of Preston North End.
With over 100 appearances under his belt for the club, Matt joined North End in a deal worth £100,000 from his local side, Bristol City in January 2005. His journey into professional football began when he joined his home town team Bristol City, as a schoolboy and he has since gone on to make over 500 appearances in a career spanning the Championship, League One, League Two and non-league.
Matt now has his UEFA B license and spends most of his time coaching at 4 Pro, an elite football academy in Preston as well being involved with the youth set up at Blackpool.
In a 90-minute chat, we spoke about his time at North End and what it was like playing under Billy Davies in the run to the play-off final in Cardiff against West Ham United and much more. So, without further ado, let’s get into it…
FTF – What was it like joining Bristol City as a youngster and coming through the academy of the team you presumably supported?
MH – To be honest, I didn’t really support anyone when I was younger but I did have a thing for Liverpool. With John Barnes playing there at the time, he was a bit of a hero of mine. I had the ‘Candy’ Liverpool home shirt and turned up to training for the Under 10s school boys in Bristol in my full Liverpool kit. Along with the flat top hair cut I had at the time, it earned me the nickname of Mark Walters for a while there.
FTF – To be fair, that Candy shirt was a classic. My hero when I was growing up was Richard Cresswell and I even had the blonde streaks in my hair to match him but it didn’t make me any better at football.
MH – That’s usually the way it goes but when you pull on that shirt, in your head at least, that’s when all the magic happens. But, back to the supporting thing, I didn’t really get involved with all the “Rovers or City” stuff, I just tended to go with City because I played with them. To be honest though, I just used to really enjoy playing.
However, as I got older, I took more interest in watching it. My dad used to play semi-professionally and I started to go along and play next to the pitch with the other kids but the best football days were the FA Cup Final days. They were the highlight really, we used to make a big party out of it but I don’t think I properly appreciated things until I got to about U13s sort of level.
It’s weird, I still remember it really clearly now. The coach sat me down and said to me “My daughter asked me how much do players want to become a professional footballer? Is it this big, or as big as the world? How much do you want to become a professional footballer?”. I didn’t really have to think about it, of course it was as big as the world, but that was definitely the ‘penny dropping’ moment for me.
Initially, I didn’t want to go into the academy as I used to be an attacker and I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t pick up the ball and take it past players and score goals. In the academy, I couldn’t do it as easily as I used to so I never used to want to go but, I have to thank my mum for insisting that I was going. Then, the conversation with the coach happened and I’ve just knuckled down and gone from there really.
As I mentioned, I went into the youth team as a winger-cum-striker and scored 13 goals that season. One day, we had a cup game and for tactical reasons, Aaron Brown, a second year YT who had played for England school boys at left back was moved higher up the pitch and I got put in at left back. I ended up having a stormer and my coach was like “Right, I think you’re a left back”.
We then had a game away at Arsenal and due to an injury, I got put at centre half and had an even better game there than I did at left back. They were 100% certain I was a defender. Naturally, I completely disagreed but as I said, I wanted it as big as the world and so I gave it a go.
Towards the end of that season, I made my first team debut for the club in a 6-1 defeat against Wolves. I came on at left back when we were 4-1 down and I was just thinking to myself “Oh shit, oh shit, this is it”. As it was, we lost 6-1 but I was absolutely buzzing. I was probably the only one coming off the pitch with a grin on my face to be honest.
I had been involved with the first team before in a pre-season game and that was a funny one that I’ll always remember. My dad was taking me to the ground but we got stuck in traffic and I was shitting myself looking at the time. I had to get out of the car and run to the ground in my suit which took me about 10 minutes. As it was, I got there literally on the minute to some of the lads already clock watching and giving it “Ooooohh!”. Not a good way to impress the gaffer on your first involvement with the first team squad!
Ultimately though, there was pros and cons to making my debut. Bristol’s obviously a big place and as a young lad, when you make mistakes, you get recognised but back then everything was in the paper with ratings and what not and you just can’t get away from it.
FTF – So, would you actively look in the paper for any ratings or were you not particularly fussed?
MH – Well yeah, you just couldn’t help but look. My mum would get it posted and that was it.
FTF – How would it make you feel? Were you one to be bothered by it?
MH – Absolutely yeah, I’d be fuming at times and it was hard to get away from. Like I say, Bristol’s a big place and there were times when I got a load of stick but there were others when I got a pat on the back.
Ultimately though, you couldn’t hide from your mistakes and it sort of got dragged along with you and you would get labelled almost. But when I moved to Preston, it was almost like a fresh start, a clean slate.
FTF – Before you moved to Preston though, didn’t you have a season when you won ‘Player of the Year’ and ‘Young Player of the Year’?
MH – Yeah, I did. Don’t get me wrong, the majority of that season was all good. It was just the odd time here and there.
FTF – So, how did the move to North End come about? Were you still playing down in Bristol or was it one of them where you just thought the time was right?
MH – Well, I was playing and playing quite well and the Chairman at the time pulled me to one side and said “We’re going to offer you a new contract” so I was thinking “Great, I’ve been here for a while now and playing regularly” but they didn’t offer me what I thought was reasonable and with all the new players coming in at that time, the new offer was basically still a youth contract despite me having played probably the most games of anyone at the club.
The Chairman basically told me it was just a case of progression and if I keep improving they’ll improve my contract but I’d been there sort of 5/6 years at the time and playing regularly. So, I wasn’t too happy at that and I asked for a clause in the contract and asked the chairman what he thought I was worth so that if someone comes in, I can go and he said £100,000.
A couple of months later, I was still doing well and he (the chairman) pulled me again and said “I want to increase your wage by £50 a week and offer you an extra year.”. I basically just said ‘thanks but no thanks’ and the QPR put a bid in. I went down to the training ground and met Ian Holloway and had a look around and was quite happy with it all.
I pulled up on my drive back from QPR and the phone goes, a number I don’t recognise and there was a Scottish bloke on the other end saying “Hi, it’s Billy Davies, manager of Preston North End. We’ve just had a bid accepted by your club, can you get upto Preston tomorrow?”
So, I got in the house and told Leigh (Matt’s wife) and it was decided. We went up the following day, met Billy and he showed us around the club and the training ground and I just really liked what he had to say. He was saying things like “We’ll only train for an hour but when you train you’ll know you’ve trained” and he explained where he wanted the club to go and what his plans were but by that point I’d already made my mind up.
I signed on the same day as young David Nugent from Bury who was absolutely rapid with his scampering legs. I’d only had 2 training sessions and the first game was against Leicester so I absolutely wasn’t expecting to be starting so I was quite chilled when I walked into the changing room and the next thing I know, I’ve just heard Billy shout “HILL!” and my immediate thought was “Oh shit, I’m starting!” and that was that.
FTF – So, what was it like to work with Billy Davies?
MH – Ah you know, he was a great guy. Very nice but so intense. When we were in the changing room it was very much an us against them kinda thing. He was very vocal and his voice travelled far. When he shouted and screamed at you, you knew about it.
He was very particular in what he wanted to do. For example, every Monday, he’d get the whole squad in and get the game on the TV and we’d sit together and watch it back with some tea and biscuits, regardless of the result. Billy’s biggest pet hate was you as a player being “one two’d” and if you did something wrong in the game you would immediately be thinking about Monday because you knew he would highlight it.
One player, I think it was Brian Stock, he used to get done with a one two quite often and Billy used to shout at him in front of the whole group and told Brian he would never play for him again until he sorted it out. Billy told him to do whatever he needed to in order to get it out of his game and the next thing you know, he’s turning up to training and smashing everyone in sight.
But as a manager, you’ve got to do what you need to in order to get your players playing. There was definitely an element of fear in our game under Billy.
FTF – I suppose the good thing about that though is that it shows the players who wanted to be there and show those who didn’t?
MH – Yeah, absolutely. He was so demanding in training. As you know with the team under Billy, we were very high intensity and high pressing and training was always 100 miles an hour. People always used to say we would blow up come 80 minutes but we’d usually be 2 or 3 up so we could afford to do it somewhat.
If someone pressed in training and there was a pass and someone wasn’t there, as with the TV, he’d pull you up for it and absolutely blast you for it. He massively helped my development though, I had to learn to think quicker and play quicker.
That first season was great though, I had a really good time. I’ve not been at a club where everyone wanted the same thing and wanted each other to do well. We were all supporting one another and encouraging other players in the same position. I really liked how he had it too, Billy was always saying in the media that it was very much that we were happy to be little old Preston and aiming for mid table but in the dressing room he had us all believing that we were going to go up and we were going to do it.
The first few games, we had some big scuffles in the tunnel or in the dressing room too. One of the ones that I remember was in a game away at West Ham, Sedge had been winding up Marlon Harewood to the point he kept saying to Sedgey “I’ll see you in the tunnel!” but as soon as the whistle went, I never saw Sedge, he was straight down the tunnel and then it all kicked off.
Ultimately though, we were a good group of lads with a good mix of youth and experience with Chris Lucketti and Graham Alexander. Both were excellent pros and very helpful with us as a family too, especially Chris Lucketti. Billy’s wife was really good with Leigh too and they all made it a really easy transition to move up here.
FTF – So, what was it like once you reached the play-offs and you had Derby County in the semis?
MH – It was quite interesting because there was a bit of a dilemma as Grezza had a hamstring and Billy had to decide whether to play Youl at right back or risk Grezza there. Ultimately, he played Youl there in both the home and away legs.
That away leg was intense though, it was one of the noisiest nights. Before kick off my ears were ringing and I was thinking to myself ‘yeah, we’re in a battle here’.
FTF – Isn’t that when Grzegorz Rasiak cried on the TV after he missed the penalty?
MH – Yeah, obviously we were just thinking the worst and he went and missed it and was obviously devastated with it. Of course we were buzzing to have gotten through in the end. It was just sheer relief and joy.
FTF – Did you all go out after the game to celebrate then?
MH – No I don’t think we did but we did go away to Marbella before the final for some warm weather training.
FTF – I assume there was a night or two that you were all not so sensible?
MH – Haha, there was one night that wasn’t too sensible yeah. The less said about that the better though.
FTF – Was there any particular player who just wanted to get on it while you were out there?
MH – To be fair, they were all up for getting on it. The whole squad was as bad as one another and then as I’m sure you can imagine, Nuge was just scampering about like a hyper 10-year-old all over the place. But you know, they were a good group of lads and we were all on it together.
FTF – So, what is like in the final build-up to the final?
MH – We went down to Cardiff the day before, training had been good in the lead up to the game but I always put it down to some things not many fans know about which is that Brian O’Neil’s son had an accident the night before the game and so he was up all night worrying about his son. Paul McKenna was his room mate and then all the wives sand families were up worrying too.
It wasn’t ideal preparation the night before a game and considering we were such a tight knit group, it probably affected us all a bit. Despite that though, it wasn’t the greatest of games and of course, Claude was the one that slipped at the back post to let Zamora in to score.
However, I have to say, fair play to West Ham, they were very professional and very dignified in the win. They were very calm and casual in the bar after the game too. I know if it was me, I’d have been bouncing off the walls.
FTF – What were things like when you came back after the summer then?
MH – Obviously, we all felt pretty crap going from that high throughout the season but Billy was doing what he always did and was winding it all up again telling us that we were going to go again.
The problem was that we couldn’t really capitalise on the feeling and give Billy what he wanted in terms of the squad. Obviously, he ended up leaving and took Claude Davies with him who was immense for us at the time.
I started that second season with an injury so Callum Davidson was in for me after I did my hamstring which was also annoying. I kept getting told I would be alright but I knew something was off and then it felt like someone had shot me in my leg when it went.
The crowd was great too, it felt almost like a full house every time we played at home but I think that old Pavillion stand was conducive to that good atmosphere. Alright, the overall attendance wouldn’t have been what it is now but the ground was more compact and tight back then.
FTF – Are there any games that stand out from your time at North End?
MH – Yeah, obvioulsy the West Ham one away stands out for the Sedgey and Marlon Harewood incident, that was pretty fun and then Norwich away too.
It was my first plane ride and they had just come down from Premier League and we won the game but the only reason I enjoyed it so much was that it was the longest possible away game, we had a great flight down there, won the game and we were back home by 8pm. It was just seamless. On the plane, get down there, win the game and then back home with the 3 points. All done by 8pm. Happy days.
Another one was Southampton away. A similar thing when we left on a plane from Manchester to Southampton and I’m not normally one for falling asleep on flights but this time I did fall asleep and then when I woke up, we were coming in to land in Manchester and I’m thinking “Shit, what’s happened here?!”.
Turns out, it was too foggy to land in Southampton and we ended up flying back and getting the on the coach down there. It was awful preparation and we got battered but we somehow ended up coming away with a win.
FTF – What was it like heading into the play-offs in the second season against Leeds United?
MH – Well, I was actually dropped for the first leg away at Elland Road. Billy Davies dropped me from the squad completely but I thought it may not be a bad thing considering I’d been involved in the past and not done very well.
The end of that game was the ‘job done’ moment on the TV after the game after Nuge had scored the winning goal. We as players understood what he meant, in that we’d done the first bit but everyone else took it completely out of context as though we already thought we were through.
Leeds even had the newspaper plastered up in their changing room at Deepdale and you could say that fueled their fire. I wasn’t involved again and was just about to order a beer but I got the call last minute that someone was injured so I was on the bench and blow me down, we lost the game.
Obviously, tempers were flared, we didn’t like the fact we had this big club coming onto our patch so we were buzzing when Watford finally beat them in the final.
FTF – After that then, did you as a squad, as a group have any idea Billy was going to be off?
MH – Um, he was very kind of relaxed at the end of the season. We knew there had been interest but he just told us to enjoy our summers. Normally he’s the type of manager to try and keep you pumped up for the following season.
Naturally though, we were gutted when he did go. Then there was obviousky the players we couldn’t keep hold of with Claude Davis, Chris Lucketti, Dickson Etuhu and Tyrone Mears all leaving. Obviously we still had the likes of Paul McKenna but I suspect if he was in Dickson Etuhu’s body, he’d have been off too.
I could never understand why people would say he’d never cut it in the Prem, he’d have done it easy.
FTF – How did you all find out about Billy going? Was it through the club or in the press?
MH – No, it was all through the press really. The players almost always tend to be the last ones to know. Obviously all the lads were gutted, it felt like the end of a holiday and it was quite disappointing as it felt like we were building something.
Then, Paul Simpson joined and he brought in some players like Mells (Neil Mellor), Ledge (Sean St. Ledger), Billy Jones, Chills (Liam Chilvers) but he obviously managed to find something as all the boys gelled pretty well again.
He did tend to go on about what he’d done at Carlisle a fair bit, like it was bigger than Preston. Not knocking his achievements of course but he came across a bit arrogant at times. Like I say though, things worked well as that was the season I won “Player of the Year” and Nuge got his England cap.
Naturally, we were all buzzing for him and to see him get the cap and the goal. It was unbelievable for me to end up pipping him to the award after everything he had achieved that season. Like I say, things were going well early on, we were top at Christmas but ended up missing out completely on the play-offs after Billy Davies dropped in the press about how Paul Simpson had inhereted his team and along with some bad signings we ended up missing out.
FTF – How did it come about that Paul Simpson ended up leaving and for Alan Irvine to come in?
MH – It all came about after that season when were struggling down at the bottom end of the league. Paul Simpson ended up leaving and Alan Irvine came in and ended up saving us from relegation. He was a really nice chap to be fair. I obviously then left to join Wolves and they went straight into the play-offs the season after.
Before that though, I got frustrated with Paul Simpson. At the end of the player of the year season, Wigan came in for me on the last day of the transfer window and Paul Simpson denied me the opportunity to move to play in the Prem despite not playing me at North End because of a ‘gut feeling’. I have to say that’s my one regret in football.
The other annoying thing about the time when Paul Simpson was there, and this was no fault of his own but we only brought in 3 free signings when were flying high toward the top of the league but then spent decent money when were down the bottom and in trouble. It was the same thing when Billy Davies was at the club, too. He didn’t get the backing he wanted and that’s ultimately why he left.
Under Alan Irvine, I was in and out of the squad and then I obviously ended up leaving in a swap deal to Wolves with Stephen Elliott coming the other way and joining Preston as Elokobi was out injured at the time and they needed cover and North End needed a striker and that was the end of that.
FTF – Who, if anyone, was at the club that you just thought “How on earth have ended up bringing this guy in?”
MH – Well, in terms of training, the tempo was always really good but one that sort of stood out was Billy Jones. He never really impressed initially but in terms of being a professional, he was spot on and then he obviously went on to do really well for North End.
Another one, bless him, who was massively out of his depth was Neil Trotman. I don’t mean this to be horrible but he just wasn’t at the same level as the rest of us. One who was lazy as hell but a quality player was Mells. He was the best finisher without a doubt. He could side foot it harder than I could just kick it and when he had the opportunity to put it in the back of the net, he usually did but he was also a really nice guy.
FTF – Finally then, on the opposite side to that, who was one that came in who you thought “This guy is quality!”
MH – Well, obviously there’s only one name really; David Nugent. He was a fans favourite pretty much from the get go and he was super quick. His quick little scampering legs, he just reminded me of Road Runner.
In terms of instant impact, it was definitely Nuge. When he wanted to go, he took off. He was unbelievable and he’s gone on to have quite the career since.
I heard a story when he moved to Portsmouth and obviously got the big money that they were meant to be chilling out in the Trafford Centre before a game but Nuge running around the place buying up all the shops while the rest of the squad were just relaxing drinking coffee. That just sums him up, a top lad.