Big Interview: Bamber Bridge assistant manager and former Everton and Blackpool defender John Hills
Blackpool born and bred; a Tangerines cult hero – he’s even enjoyed stints playing, managing and coaching at the Seasiders’ rivals Fleetwood Town and AFC Fylde.
The name of John Hills is synonymous with football on the Fylde coast.
So you would imagine taking on a job at Bamber Bridge – Preston’s premier non-league club – would be quite the poisoned chalice for someone inextricably linked to Blackpool – the deadly rivals of North End.
Inevitably Brig are viewed as the second team of many PNE supporters, but Hills revealed that he has received nothing but warm wishes and goodwill since arriving at the Sir Tom Finney Stadium as boss Jamie Milligan’s right-hand man at the end of last year.
Together the pair revived the club’s fortunes after they appeared to be heading towards the NPL Premier Division trapdoor.
A fine run of results pushed the club up to a midtable spot and the likelihood was they would have remained in that position until the season was brought to a premature halt due to the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic.
Having been brought up in this part of the world, Hills is all too aware of the fierce football rivalry between Blackpool and Preston, but he had no qualms about stepping over to the “other side” when Brig came calling.
“It’s been fine since we came,” said Hills with a laugh. “To be fair, I knew quite a lot of the lads and everybody at the club has been brilliant.
“I know a lot about the club – I have played there quite a bit in the past in friendlies when I was with Blackpool and also when I started playing non-league after I retired from playing professionally.
“It’s a crackling little club and it’s a pleasure to be a part of it.
“I enjoyed last season a lot more than I thought I would, so I’ve grown really fond of the club.”
Despite his allegiance to Brig, Hills revealed some of his greatest memories in football came when he played in a Tangerines shirt and came up against the Lilywhites.
In fact his favourite goal is one he scored at Deepdale.
In a League One clash in 1998, the two rivals played out a thrilling 3-3 draw.
Hills had given the visitors a 2-1 interval lead after Phil Clarkson’s early strike had been cancelled out by David Eyres.
North End goalkeeper Tepi Moilanen had dropped a cross and the ball found its way to the edge of the penalty box where Hills was lurking to lash the ball home to send the away end into raptures.
The hosts hit back after the break courtesy of Gary Parkinson and Jon Macken, but Lee Philpott ensured the derby spoils were shared with an equaliser.
Hills still vividly remembers his goal and the celebrations which followed –a picture of it has pride of place on the wall at his mum and dad’s house.
“Without a doubt, the derby games between Blackpool and Preston were some of the biggest games that I played in.
“I used to really look forward to playing in them.
“I remember coming up against players like Lee Cartwright and Sean Gregan loads of times.
“The tackles used to fly in – they were always big games and fiercely contested.
“I remember scoring at Deepdale one year and I have the picture of myself celebrating hanging up on the wall at my mum and dad’s house.
“They were great games to play in, always explosive and the atmosphere was brilliant.
“I used to enjoy playing in the derby games – unless you got beaten of course.”
Hills began his career at Blackpool but was lured away by Everton before he had time to make a first-team appearance at Bloomfield Road.
Catching the eye of then Toffees boss Joe Royle during a FA Youth Cup game between the two clubs, Hills was snapped up by the Premier League outfit for £90,000.
“I came on as a sub away at Wimbledon and that was my Premier League debut,” Hills recalls.
“That was the old Wimbledon – Vinne Jones was playing for them. That was an eye opener.
“My full debut was at Goodison against Chelsea – I was marking Gianfranco Zola.
“At the time, he was one of the best players in the world – it was just so surreal. They were brilliant times and I feel so fortunate to have played at that level.”
Unfortunately, Hills failed to nail down a regular place at Everton and he was initially loaned out to Swansea City before eventually making the move back to hometown club Blackpool.
“I had the chance to stay at Everton,” Hills said.
“Howard Kendall came in as manager, replacing Joe Royle.
“He didn’t really give the younger lads a chance so I ended up going out on loan to Blackpool under Nigel Worthington.
“I just enjoyed playing in front of a crowd every week and I just decided to go back to Blackpool, the team i supported as a boy.
“Had it been any other club , I probably would have stayed at Everton because I did have the option to remain there. It was a choice I made at the time and I don’t regret it.
“I ended up having a good career out of the game.”
Hills helped the Tangerines out of the old Third Division when they won the play-off final, defeating Leyton Orient 4-2 at the Millennium Stadium in 2001.
He would later score at the same venue, notching the third in a 4-1 win over Cambridge United to win the LDV Vans Trophy in 2002.
His good performances eventually resulted in Gillingham, then of the Championship, come calling for his services.
A two-year stint at the Priestfield Stadium was followed by a move to Sheffield Wednesday.
He finished his professional career back at Blackpool, before ending his playing days with short spells in non-league at both Fleetwood Town and AFC Fylde.
At Highbury, Hills set up a youth academy in conjunction with first-team boss Mickey Mellon.
He has since gone on to hold coaching positions in various guises at Blackpool, Southport and Hyde United before becoming joint caretaker boss of Fylde, alongside former Preston and
Blackpool striker Brett Ormerod, last year following the sacking of Dave Challoner.
With Brig struggling, they turned to Milligan and Hills in December following the departure of Joey Collins.
“We managed to turn things around at Brig last season and got the team playing some really good football,” said Hills.
“It’s a shame the season ended when it did because we fancied ourselves to move even further up the table.”