Born 31 July 1941
Died 27 October 2016
Brian Hill was a footballer from bygone era. A modest, loyal, hard-working, self effacing man dedicated to his sport. He passed away last week aged 75 after a long fight with Alzheimer's. Between 1958 and 1970 he made 286 appearances for Coventry City, playing in every outfield position and appearing in five different divisions of the League as well as playing European football in that memorable 1970-71 season. He was never a spectacular player but always got through a prodigious amount of work and though often under-appreciated by the fans he was a key man in Jimmy Hill’s team of the 1960s.
Until 16-year olds Gary McSheffrey, Ben Mackey and Jonson Clark-Harris came on to the first team scene as substitutes Brian was Coventry City’s youngest ever player. He held the record for forty years since his goalscoring debut against Gillingham in 1958 and remains to this day the youngest ever starter for the club as well as the youngest goalscorer.
He was still three months short of his seventeenth birthday when he made his debut in what was City’s last ever game in the old Division Three South. The old South and North sections were reorganised into the new Divisions Three and Four in the summer of 1958 and a poor City side had failed to finish in the top half of the table, which would have qualified them to be in Division Three. It had been a miserable season - a thirteen-game run without a win from Boxing Day to mid-March had consigned them to the new basement division – and manager Billy Frith, who had taken over a shambles the previous September, was already planning for the new league by blooding youngsters.
Brian had been impressive in the FA Youth Cup playing at centre-forward and scoring four goals in three ties that season. Looking back Brian had only dim and distant memories, he told me some years ago, “I think I only got a game because the season was as good as over and it was a chance for the manager to look at some of the kids. I had barely played for the reserves before and it was a big surprise to play for the first-team.”
Born in Bedworth, Brian was a prolific sportsman at Nicholas Chamberlain School, representing Warwickshire Schools at football and cricket. After leaving school in 1956 Brian went to work at the Jaguar factory but after a few months he was invited to trials with City and was offered an apprentice contract. In April 1958 with both main strikers Ray Straw and Jimmy Rogers injured Frith decided to play Brian at inside-right and his namesake Ray at centre-forward in the final game on a warm early summer’s evening in Kent. Ray was six years older than Brian and had played ten games since joining from Redditch Town the previous November. With Peter Hill at inside-left City played three Hills in the side for the first time.
Brian had a dream start to his career when, with only seven minutes on the clock he scored. Nemo in the Coventry Evening Telegraph described it in glowing terms.
“He took just seven minutes to score, and what a peach of a goal it was. The ball came down the middle. Brian took it in his stride and drove it grass-high into the corner with the aplomb of a veteran.”
City were well on top for the first half an hour, playing, according to the match report, some of their best football for weeks but after the interval the home side picked their game up and they won the game 3-2.
For the next four seasons Brian struggled on as an average inside or outside left but played less than 40 first team games. In November 1961 he was at inside left in the side beaten by Kings Lynn in that infamous FA Cup tie that heralded the departure of Frith and the arrival of Jimmy Hill as manager.
Jimmy watched that game incognito in the stands and later in his autobiography wrote: 'against Northampton....I picked my first league eleven, dropping Brian Hill from the number 9 position, in which he had played against Kings Lynn, and telling him that when he came back into the side it would be to stay, but positively not as a striker'.
This is one of the first examples of Jimmy's uncanny ability to identify the best position for players – later examples were Dietmar Bruck, Mick Kearns and Dave Clements. Hill, recognising Brian's strength as his major asset, converted him into a defensive half-back and he took to the new role like a duck to water. In the 1962-63 season he became a regular in the team playing 47 games, earning a reputation as a tough tackling man-marker, he was even tipped for England under-23 honours in 1965.
Brian was first choice at either wing-half or full-back until 1967 except when his niggling hamstring injuries kept him on the sidelines but it seemed whenever he returned to the side their fortunes picked up. If there was a key man to be marked Brian usually got the job and he had some memorable tussles with Manchester United’s Dennis Law and Tottenham’s Jimmy Greaves and usually came out on top.
Fan David Walker remembers Brian with fondness and especially the Manchester United FA Cup tie in 1963 when Brian marked Denis Law, at the time the most expensive footballer in British football and the deadliest of strikers. 'Brian was one of the most under-rated players we ever had. My assessment of Brian was that often you hardly knew he was on the pitch, but his opposite number would hardly get a look in all match, such was his efficiency as a defender. Perhaps the most over-riding memory was the famous cup tie against Manchester United in 1963. We may have lost, but standing there, on the terraces, I remember that at the end of the match, as the players came off, Denis Law, who had had a very quiet game, picked up a handful of mud and threw it at Brian!
Frustration coming out perhaps.'
Frustration coming out perhaps.'
After promotion in 1967 Hill did not look out of his depth in the First Division and had a dramatic moment at Fulham when he came off the substitute’s bench to score his first league goal for over four years to earn City a valuable point. In his last two years he was restricted to 13 appearances and normally called upon to do specific marking jobs. He was only on the losing side twice during that period and there were some memorable marking jobs that he carried out. In March 1970 he put a dent in Everton's championship hopes with his “job” on Alan Ball in the 0-0 draw at Goodison and in one of his final games at Anfield later that year he was lauded for his performance in another 0-0 that earned the Sky Blues' first ever point at the ground. In the same month he was on the winning side as City beat Bayern Munich 2-1 in the home second leg of their Fairs Cup tie.
The club laid on a deserved testimonial game for him in 1969 with Brian Clough’s Derby County providing the opposition in a 1-1 draw.
His final game was on Boxing Day 1970 in a 1-1 home draw with West Brom when he conceded the penalty that gave the Baggies a point. In March 1971 he went on loan to Bristol City, managed by Alan Dicks, his former assistant manager at Coventry, and helped them to avoid relegation to Division 3. Later that year he joined Fourth Division Torquay United for £5,000 but lived and trained in Coventry for two years making over 50 appearances for the Gulls.
Four City players played in all four divisions of the league during City’s rise from 1958 to 1967, Hill, George Curtis, Ron Farmer and Mick Kearns, and Brian was the last one of the famous four to leave the club. The four made over 1500 appearances for the club between them and his departure brought the famous era of the club to an end.
One of the famous four, Ron Farmer, told me, 'Brian was a quiet lad, I never saw him lose his temper on or off the pitch and I can't remember him having a bad game. He was a great tackler and Jimmy always had him mark the opponent's danger man. I'm very sad to hear of his death'.
Mick Kearns made his debut a few months before Brian and the pair played together many times. He talked affectionately about Brian, 'Off the field he was the most unassuming man, there was no side to him and he never get ruffled. On the pitch he was a great athlete who always gave 100% and would play whatever role he was asked to do'.
Another friend and playing colleague was Bill Tedds who grew up with Brian in Bedworth and followed him to Highfield Road as an apprentice. 'Brian and I were very close in our teens, we did everything together, even going on holiday with each other. He wasn't the tallest player but he was as strong as an ox and ideally suited to be a defender. He was fanatical about weight-lifting and I'm sure that was the cause of some of his muscle injuries. But for injuries I'm sure he would have won international honours for England.'
After two seasons at Torquay at the age 31 Brian retired from the professional game and returned to the Midlands. He went to work at Jaguar and played briefly for Bedworth United, who were managed by his former City teammate Gerry Baker.
He worked on the Jaguar production line for 18 years and then had ten years as a driver for HSBC Bank before retiring in 2003. He leaves his wife Margaret, a son, two daughters and six grandchildren who, in his retirement, he doted on.
Brian's funeral takes place on Tuesday 15 November at 10.15 at All Saints Church in Bedworth, followed by a cremation. I am sure there will be a big turn out of friends and former colleagues for a great servant of Coventry City.