Last month, in the offices of the PFA where he is now the Commercial Director, Colin talked to Club Historian John Hutchinson about his career.
This included his time at Highbury, playing at the top level in Portugal, playing for Jock Wallace at Colchester United, being promoted with Sheffield United and appearing in two Play-Off finals for Leicester City, where he was also Player of the Year and captain.
He also had spells in Sweden and at Northampton Town. Uxbridge-born Colin started by describing how his life in football began.
“When I was 14 and at Grammar school I trained at Arsenal for two nights a week. I’d do my homework going home on the tube. I joined Arsenal from school in 1979. I did one year’s apprenticeship. I couldn’t have wished to join a better club, Terry Neill was the manager. l was a centre-forward then. I scored goals in the South East Counties League. Then the youth coach Terry Burton played me at centre-half in a reserve team game. Just over a year later I made my first team debut playing at centre-half.
“My debut was away at Norwich [in April 1983]. Terry made changes after Arsenal had been knocked out of the FA Cup by Manchester United. On the Monday following that match about five of us reserves were involved in the coaching and the training. I didn’t know I was playing until the day of the game, on the Wednesday.
Colin's career started in 1977 at Arsenal.
"We didn’t win but I enjoyed my debut immensely. I was lucky enough to stay in the team for the rest of that season. Pat Jennings was in goal. I couldn’t have wished for a more calming influence. This made a big difference for a young player coming into a central defensive role.
"I also had good players around me like Kenny Sansom, Graham Rix, Brian Talbot, Chrissy White, Paul Davis, Alan Sunderland, Liam Brady, Tony Woodcock, Charlie Nicholas and Paul Mariner. They were all household names. Then there was Sammy Nelson and Pat Rice who had a big influence on the whole squad.
“In the next season [1983/84] I didn’t miss many games. At the end of the season Don Howe, who took over when Terry Neill was sacked in December, told me that he was going to play me at right back. Then they signed Viv Anderson who was the current England right back!”
In July 1986, Colin left Arsenal for Madeira to play for the Portuguese Primeira Liga side, Maritimo.
“Arsenal didn’t want me to leave because I could play at right-back, left-back and centre-half,” Colin recalled.
The standard was good. The year I was there, Porto, one of the best teams I ever played against, were European champions. I ended up playing centre-forward. In my third game we drew 2-2 with Benfica and I scored both goals. I was playing up front on my own for a while.Colin Hill
“This meant I got a few games that season but I wanted more. Steve Burtenshaw was the interim manager. I had a phone call from Maritimo’s Swedish manager who asked me to go out for a week to have a look. I went out and they asked me to sign as a defensive midfield player.
“The standard was good. The year I was there, Porto, one of the best teams I ever played against, were European champions. I ended up playing centre-forward. In my third game we drew 2-2 with Benfica and I scored both goals. I was playing up front on my own for a while.”
In October 1987, Colin returned to England and joined Fourth Division Colchester United.
Colin explained" “The Madeirans were the friendliest people you could ever wish to meet. I enjoyed my time there immensely but I was ready to come home in the October of my second season. Colchester’s chairman said I should use the club as a stepping stone. He gave me an 18-month contract. I won Player of the Year both years I was there, playing at centre-half.
“Half way through my second season, Jock Wallace [the ex-Leicester City manager] became the manager. Alan Ball came with him. I can’t speak highly enough of Jock. He made an instant impression. He expected very high standards in training. Everything about him was high quality.
"He didn’t want players training with their socks down. It was very regimented but he was an unbelievable person to play for. He was a gentleman as well.
“After one Friday night game, Jock took me into the Board Room toilets and offered me a three-year contract. On the Monday, he said that the offer still stood. I was very honest with him and said, ‘Jock, I’d really like to play at a higher level and want to assess my options.’
Hill played for the Foxes between 1992 and 1997.
“At the end of that season I had a letter from Sheffield United’s [future Leicester City manager] Dave Bassett asking me to sign for them because he’d seen me playing against them in the FA Cup. The fee was set at a tribunal so Colchester, who had got me for nothing, made some money. It was the right time to leave”.
At the end of Colin’s first season at Bramall Lane, Sheffield United were promoted to the Premier League. Colin well remembers the last game of that season.
“We won 5-2 at Filbert Street. The sun was shining. Every time we scored a goal our fans invaded the pitch. Our fans were all in fancy dress.”
In March 1992, towards the end of third season at Sheffield United, Colin signed for Brian Little’s Leicester City.
“Transfer deadline day was on the Wednesday. I had two phone calls, one from Cambridge and one from Leicester City who were both going for a place in the Premier League.
"When I told Cambridge that I had decided to join Leicester they weren’t best pleased! There were 10 games to go to the end of the season. I trained on the Thursday at Belvoir Drive and the first game was away at Tranmere. We won that game. We then went on a fantastic run. We even beat Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn away. They were the top team. ‘Rooster’ Russell scored.”
City met Cambridge United in Play-Off semi-finals.
“We drew the first leg 1-1 at Cambridge on a nice sunny day”, Colin remembered. “They had put the heating up in the changing rooms! Back at Filbert Street we were 4-0 up after about half an hour. I could see them panicking. Cambridge were a tough team but we outfought them.”
On the Monday, I remember the sea of blue. We were amazed at the amount of Leicester City fans who were there. It gave us a real boost and a buzz. I remember walking out onto the pitch and thinking, ‘wow!’ I know we lost but it was to a team which went onto win the Premier League!Colin Hill
Leicester’s opponents in the Play-Off Final at Wembley were Blackburn Rovers. “We went down on the Saturday morning. Our game wasn’t until the Monday. On the Saturday and Sunday, we trained in the mornings and went to Wembley to watch the other play-off finals in the afternoons. We were quite relaxed.
“On the Monday, I remember the sea of blue. We were amazed at the amount of Leicester City fans who were there. It gave us a real boost and a buzz. I remember walking out onto the pitch and thinking, ‘wow!’ I know we lost but it was to a team which went onto win the Premier League!”
The following season, Leicester City reached the Wembley Play-Off Final again.
“We worked really hard in the pre-season”, Colin continued. “We were a tough team with some good characters. Brian probably could’ve picked two teams of the same level of ability with the players we had. I didn’t miss a game that season and was Player of the Year. We were always in amongst the top six.
"In the Play-Off Final against Glenn Hoddle’s Swindon, we were 3-0 down. When we scored our first goal I can still remember telling the players, ‘look at them! They are scared stiff! We can do this’. We pulled it back to 3-3 but Swindon scored a late penalty and we lost 4-3. It was a big disappointment but we have to take credit for getting to the Wembley Play -Off final two seasons running.”
The following season, Leicester City finally made it into the Premier league, defeating Derby County 2-1 in the Play-Off Final at Wembley, although due to injuries, the team only won three of the last twelve games.
“That season, I was playing all the games again and then in March I got injured. There were four or five of us all out injured at the same time. We all ended up needed operations. I remember me, Speedie, [David Speedie] and Walshie [Steve Walsh] going in one after the other to a knee specialist.
Colin made 27 appearances for Northern Ireland in his career.
"I played two reserve games right at the death, but I’d been out for about eight weeks and there was no way Brian could play me at Wembley, although I was on the bench. We won though!”
Back in the top flight, Leicester City struggled.
“I started the first couple of games and then Brian said he was going to go with the young players and he left me out. Then he left the Club. When Tony McAndrew and Kevin MacDonald took temporary charge, they put me back in the team. My first game back was against Brian Little’s Aston Villa!
“Then Mark McGhee became the manager. It was unbelievable. My third game back in the team was against Blackburn. At quarter-past two he walked into the changing room and said, ‘Hilly, you’re captain’. I wasn’t even in the team three weeks before!
“It was nice to be back in the Premier League but we struggled. It was a battle from day one and we were relegated.”
The following season, McGhee developed a really attractive skilful side.
Thinking back to this, Colin reflected: “We were playing total football. I remember us going to West Brom. We were like Manchester City in the first half. We were just passing it around. We were 3-0 up and cruising, although it ended up 3-2 as our new goalkeeper Spider Kalac dropped a couple and Pontus Kaamark got badly injured!
“Colin Lee was a really good coach. His training was very good. It was intensive. It was all about keeping the ball.”
Martin is a very good manager. His record speaks for itself. He was a good motivator. Things didn’t go well for him to start with but he turned it round and after a good late run we got back into the Premier League after another Play-Off Final against Crystal Palace.Colin Hill
However, in December 1995, with the team in second place, McGhee walked out on the club. Martin O’Neill was appointed shortly afterwards and had a difficult first couple of months.
“Martin is a very good manager. His record speaks for itself. He was a good motivator. Things didn’t go well for him to start with but he turned it round and after a good late run we got back into the Premier League after another Play-Off Final against Crystal Palace.
“I lost my place in the team, but he was very honest with me. He told me he was looking at other people. He kept me informed and he kept me involved in the squad. He brought his own players in but when one of those guys was injured he put me in. He trusted me. I was still playing for Northern Ireland. He treated me like an experienced player which was very respectful. I have a lot of time for him.”
The allusion to playing for Northern Ireland prompted Colin to recall that whilst he was at Filbert Street, he won 16 of his 27 caps.
“My father was from Belfast”, he said. “As a 19 year-old at Arsenal I made the decision to choose to play for Northern Ireland. Although I was involved in Billy Bingham’s squads, I didn’t make my international debut until I was at Sheffield United, 24 hours before I returned to England to play a league match at Oldham. When Bryan Hamilton took over from Billy Bingham, I became more of a regular in the team playing alongside the likes of Gerry Taggart, Neil Lennon, Steven Lomas, Ian Dowie and Keith Gillespie. We had a really good team ethic.”
In July 1997, Colin went to Sweden.
“My last game for Leicester City was against Arsenal at Highbury in April 1997. I got concussed. Kasey Keller knocked me out! I’d had an offer through Pontus [Kaamark] to go and play for a team called Trelleborgs in Sweden to help them avoid relegation which we achieved.
"When I came back, Martin said I could be a squad player but I wanted to keep playing. I had a couple of offers and decided to go to Northampton.”
Colin spent 18 months at Northampton Town, reaching a Division Two Wembley Play-off final against Grimsby Town.
He then decided to retire from playing and take up a job offer in marketing at Leicester City. This opened up a new career direction and Colin is currently the Commercial Director for the PFA.
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