As a kid, my good friend Eric, who still goes to watch the Impact, used to wander off from his home on the Plateau to watch training at Molson Stadium hoping to get a glimpse of Gordon Hill. But a glimpse was all he’d get, the cheeky Cockney was not overly inclined to take young fans under his notice.
But that was Gordon Hill, the oft times temperamental star of the Manic in 1981 and 1982.
In that year and a bit Hill, nicknamed Merlin (after the magician) during his days with Millwall in the early 70’s recorded impressive stats. In 36 matches he scored 18 times and contributed 15 assists.. Not bad by anyone’s reckoning.
Just over three years previously though he was starring for Manchester United in England’s First Division (forerunner to the Premier League).
United’s Scottish manager Tommy Docherty, who celebrated his 92nd birthday only last week, plucked Hill from the relative obscurity of England’s Third Division in 1975. Hill had been turning heads with his pace, skill and goalscoring exploits in London’s docklands and the scouts were beginning to gather.
Docherty was decisive, laying down £70,000 (CAD$120,000) for the starlet’s signature and immediately throwing him into his newly promoted side, adding balance on the left side to another youngster plucked from the lower divisions, right-winger Steve Coppell. Both would go on to play for England.
Hill takes up the story...
“At half-time during a League Cup game, the Millwall manager told me I was not going back on. I asked him why and if it was to save me for Saturday.
“He told me that I wouldn’t be playing for the club again because the bank had told Millwall they had to sell me. News of a bid from United had only just arrived. I was disappointed to go off, but excited about United.”
The young Hill had just entered another stratosphere. As told to United! United! featured in United We Stand fanzine...
“I was overawed by the place. One of my brothers had a poster of Best, Law and Charlton on his bedroom wall and now I was being asked to join the club they’d played at. I was taken to a room where chairman Louis Edwards, Tommy Docherty and Sir Matt Busby were sat down.”
Edwards kicked the discussion off rather insultingly, “You’re a flash London bastard but we’ll cut you down to size.”
“It didn’t put me off and United didn’t need selling,” recalls Hill. “I would have played for them for nothing. I signed a contract without actually realising how much I would get paid a week. I had to ask later and was told that it would be £125 – double what I’d been on at Millwall. I had a signing on fee of £3,500 too.”
Docherty would sign Hill a total of three times, also for Derby County and Queen’s Park Rangers. But on first acquiring the future Manic star, he had this to say...
“Even at the time it was a fairly modest fee. Gordon was a fast, direct winger who was not only a maker but a taker of goals. He had tremendous ability, and his attitude and character were first class.”
United were the exciting ‘latest new thing’. A breath of fresh air. Their young team, playing fast flamboyant football, with two flying wingers, bucked the trend as English football found itself in a period of defensively-influenced tactics.
They threatened to take the First Division by storm in their first season back, but ultimately would come up short behind Liverpool approaching their heyday and a very good Queen’s Park Rangers (Yes, QPR - you read that correctly).
Hill didn’t have to wait long before making his United debut v Aston Villa the weekend after joining. “It was hard,” he recalls. “The standard was much higher and I got cramps after.” His new team won 2-0.
But despite 51 goals from the wing in 132 appearances, being considered a success throughout his tenure at the club and always remaining popular with fans who christened him ‘The King of All Cockneys’, Hill’s United career would last only three seasons.
The sunny days all came under ‘the Doc’. United had won the FA Cup denying Liverpool the treble in 1977 and the next day in the papers news broke about an affair Docherty had been having with Mary Brown, wife of club physio Laurie Brown. At a board meeting the following week, Docherty who had just led United to their first major trophy in 9 years, was dismissed.
It spelt bad news for Hill as the man selected as Docherty’s replacement was QPR manager, Dave Sexton. Where ‘the Doc’ favoured champagne-flowing football, Sexton was Mr Pragmatic. Hill’s days were numbered, Mr Sexton wanted United’s exciting wingers to defend more. In fact he probably made Hill’s counter-balance on the other flank, Steve Coppell, the best right-back in England.
Hill’s career highlight reel is topped by a wonderful two-goal salvo to defeat Derby County, then a formidable side, in the semi-final of the 1976 FA Cup, then also a highly important competition, unlike today. United were back in a final for the first time in 8 seasons. Unfortunately they flopped on the day, losing 0-1 to Second Division Southampton. Hill had a poor game and was subbed off.
“Those goals [in the semi-final] were the highlight of my whole career,” he says. “The first one stands out. I was in the middle and played a one-two with Gerry Daly, who was at the left edge of the penalty area. I took one touch and as Roy McFarland ran to close me down I bent a left-footer into the top corner. We were going to Wembley.
“United fans took over Hillsborough and everyone was singing. We were so happy to be going to Wembley for the first time since 1963 in the greatest cup competition in the world.”
He was also subbed off in the following year’s final when Liverpool were denied, but at least it was a joyous occasion with victory securing for United a spot in the European Cup Winners Cup.
Hill’s last great contribution in the red shirt came in that competition, when almost 60,000 packed Old Trafford for the visit of Juventus in round two. ‘Merlin’ was the undoubted star of the show that night as the rough-house tactics of the Italians were met by fire and flair from United, not least from Hill.
United’s number 11 claimed the only goal, an unstoppable left-foot volley past helpless Dino Zoff, in front of an emotionally-charged crowd who frequently chanted, “Animals! Animals!” at the Italians, such was the ferocity of their tackling.
Within a year Sexton had off-loaded Hill (United’s top-scorer at the time of his departure) to Derby County from where he followed former manager Docherty to QPR.
It would never the same again for Hill, who was unable to re-discover the form of his United days under Docherty. Whether it was disillusionment after leaving United, injury, or the fact that now he was surrounded by less talented players, his form and stats declined. It was time for part two of his career.
Hill left England for Quebec and Montreal Manic in the NASL. After a good first season with Manic they off-loaded him after only 5 games to Chicago Sting, where he’d already played for one summer during his Millwall days.
Things had rather quickly turned sour. Manic’s top-scorer no longer wished to play soccer in Canada, as tax loopholes, plugged in the November federal budget, meant losing too much of his salary to taxes.
Rejecting a final offer from team management which would have placed him in the top three NASL earners, the player also claimed his family was experiencing difficulty adjusting to bilingual life in Montreal, and requested a move to an American club.
Hill resumed his career with the Chicago Sting, but he wasn’t quite finished with Montreal just yet. With the NASL in financial difficulty the former Manic player returned less than a year later to play for Inter-Montreal in the Canadian Professional Soccer League for one season.
There followed a few indoor stints before returning to Europe with Twente Enschede (Holland) and the former club of Raitala and Lappalainen, HJK Helsinki.
He also managed Nova Scotia Clippers of the Canadian Soccer League (1991) and is now CEO of his own soccer business United-sports LLC, registered in Snoqualmie, Washington.
United’s King of the Cockneys flickered brightly but all too briefly in Montreal colours. Still fondly remembered here by some for his outrageous talent, yet others, possibly like the Manic’s ownership and my friend Eric with youthful exuberance quashed, were simply left disappointed.