It was about 4.50 pm and the BBC’s Grandstand show was still fussing about Rag Trade’s win earlier in the day at the 1976 Aintree Grand National. The cameras whizzed and bobbed around sweating flanks and champagne spray in the paddock area. Suddenly the picture moved east across the Pennines to Hillsborough where Manchester United had just reached the FA Cup final thanks to another genius of the flanks, Gordon Hill. Coming off the pitch in a tizz of glory, Gordon Hill eclipsed the recently run horse-race. The BBC enjoyed conveying the dual moments of excitement from the two centres in northern England.
Gordon Hill arrived at Manchester United in November 1975 from Millwall in a £70,000 deal. He was only to play 101 times for them in that short period which ended two and a half years later in the spring of 1978. Just like the punk movement which roughly coincided, he created an energy and a legacy far beyond his time there. He was probably the most exciting player to watch since George Best at Old Trafford and played as if the game was simply fun. However after a move to Derby and then QPR he had left British football aged 26 and played the remainder of his career on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Longevity…. perhaps not, but impact ….certainly. Some of you will see similarities to Best’s career path no doubt there.
For many, he may come to mind well before others who had longer more substantive careers. But as you have probably gathered this position on the football pitch has that ‘freer association’ image attached. Hence there is that whiff of rock and roll therein. If Keith Richards had been a footballer would he have been a left winger?
‘Pleased to meet you, hope you get my name’ would have translated well with a few of them during its journey from the stage to the touchline. Who would have not enjoyed hearing Barry Davies intone “Unbelievable from Richards!”
The key to all this was manager Tommy Docherty who gave Hill free licence to wreak such havoc. Hill has stated this in many a subsequent interview but it was clear as day. A lot of things helped his arrival it must be said. The previous season United had scourged through the country’s Second Division clubs making it clear they didn’t belong there. The tired old team that Denis Law had sent down in April 1974 had returned wearing a new tighter skin.
Hill arrived into a team that had already scorched earth in the first three months of the 1975 season. A young side, they were under little expectation that first season back into the top division. He became the sixth member of a front six that almost decreed a free inhaler with your ticket, such was their speed and energy. Gerry Daly, Lou Macari, Sammy McIlroy, Stevie Coppell and Stuart Pearson were a red blur of speed, movement and energy. Hill was the perfect addition.
He played as he got on in real life. He was the archetypal Cockney ‘Cheeky Chappie’. He had been a sitting target for the leg-pulls and traps set for his youthful self when he joined the Millwall dressing room manned by the likes of Eamon Dunphy. Such was his innocence but this fed into his playing.
It was well summed up to me on Cup Final morning when the BBC and ITV tended to do in-depth features on players that you simply didn’t get anywhere near for the rest of the year. Hill proceeded to do an impression of comedian and actor Norman Wisdom to the extent that there was simply no-one else he could have done such was the natural fit. Wearing a skew-whiff duncher and a pulled face he looked like a twenty-year-old Wisdom.
Hill was pure ‘on his toes energy’ and many well beyond the Stretford End made him the poster boy of British football that season along with Coppell on the right. Fans just weren’t used to seeing these red scalpels on either side opening up defences the way they did. They in some respects were tapping into the nation’s favourite team schtick. After Munich 1958 and the European Cup win in ‘68 people could bask in the football they expected of the premier club.
He was different from the others on the scene as he was as fresh-faced and as innocent as they came. He had been nicknamed Merlin after the comic book magician and took to this moniker in the only way he knew. He appeared to dance on the pitch and I remember all the photographs of him always six inches above the ground. He appeared more balanced off the ground than on it. Stuart Pearson was always a willing tyro of a forward eager to get on the end of things but Hill was as capable of doing his own offensive damage. The team were not that one dimensional either and again it all comes back to that ‘just let them play’ ethos of Docherty.
It all came to settle on that FA Cup semi-final on Grand National day – 3 April 1976, two days after his 22nd birthday. It is probably natural that in such a short period in the sun he would have an Icarus moment. His two goals, both outside the area would be the high point of his footballing life.
It caused such a stir that Saturday evening as indeed they had not been favourites against Derby. His first goal was the best. A lancing, bending shot into the Derby net striking a blow against organised convention the world over. But watch his part in the build-up. Picking up Brian Greenhoff’s ball in midfield, he flicks it up and delivers it into Gerry Daly’s path. The peacock shows his plumage. He would not have been a Mourinho man. The photos with his arms held close and high with his head arched back carry the same impact today as then.
It would come to nothing as complacency and a substitution in the final v Southampton meant a sad end to the season. The team the following year just wasn‘t quite the same as the season before. It was if they had been given the key to the house but also the responsibility that came with it. He still carried that unpredictability. The unpredictability that had goalkeeper Pat Jennings saying he was one of the most dangerous forwards about.
Those flashing volleys were still there. First seen against Peterborough in the FA Cup run in ’76, they were witnessed again against Juventus and Birmingham. He was substituted once more in the Cup Final against Liverpool though they were victorious that season. He was still an exhilarating winger and six England caps were collected. But like many other flair players of the decade, England was a dubious entity. Alan Hudson, Tony Currie, Stan Bowles and Frank Worthington could have told him that. He, in turn, could have told Glenn Hoddle a few years later.
Dave Sexton who replaced Docherty was the writing on the wall for the 1977/78 season. Conservative in a general and footballing outlook he grew tired of the lack of Hill’s tracking back. Coppell could do it….why not Hill? But Coppell wouldn’t get you twenty odd goals a season. When captain Martin Buchan cuffed him on the back of the head for such a misdemeanour there was no way back.
As leading scorer, he joined Derby in April 1978, two years after his great moment against them. The manager who bought him? Tommy Docherty. Whilst he scored on his debut he got injured in the early part of the ‘78/79 season and as all speedsters will tell you once you lose that yard…. The fans grew weary of his efforts to recover his past and one of the great if cruel football chants rang out across the land from that awkward new wave Jilted John song ‘Gordon is a moron’.
It had been short but brilliant. Jesper Olsen would be the nearest winger to emulate him in 1983. But I tell you now…Hill was a classic. He was what football fans paid to see. The beauty of these players was that they simply were a rock ’n roll concert on grass. He probably was my favourite of the decade.