FLITCROFT versus Hill? It’s like Batman vs Robin, Starsky against Hutch, or Butch Cassidy doing battle with the Sundance Kid.
Best mates off the pitch, former team-mates on it, Keith Hill and David Flitcroft have spent the last eight years as one of the game’s most formidable managerial duos, taking Rochdale out of League Two for the first time in 36 years and then keeping Barnsley in the Championship.
And while their contracts said Flitcroft was assistant and Hill manager, such was their insistence at being viewed as a team that they preferred to be known as “Hillcroft”.
But on Friday, for the first time in their careers, the pair will be in opposing dugouts as Hill’s promotion chasing Rochdale side visit Flitcroft’s improving Bury.
“It will be weird,” admits Hill, who at 44 is the senior partner by four years. “Most of my career has involved Flicker and it still does.
“I probably speak with him on a daily basis. And if I don’t speak with him I’ll almost always text him, and vice versa.
“We do obviously have a deep friendship, which goes beyond our management careers. It’s been a product of being brought up in Bolton, of representing Rochdale as players.
“To me, he’s almost like family. I’ve got two marvellous sisters, but Flicker is like the brother I never had.”
Though friendly and engaging, Hill is the more reserved. When I ask what he likes about Flitcroft, he laughs. “What the hell is this, Mr and Mrs?”
But Flitcroft, who credits Hill with helping him get over the sudden death of his father in 2008, is more than happy to eulogise about his partner.
“Any time I’m with Hilly, I enjoy it,” says Flitcroft. “I love being around him, I love being part of his life. And no matter what we do, it’ll always be like that. I think the world of him.
“He knows I’d do anything for him. I know he’d do anything for me. As everybody knows, I had a really tough time when my dad died. And Hilly was a rock for me in those days.
“He’s got a massive family, like I have. We share a background, share the same values. We’re very driven and honest. I see everything good in him, and from a football point of view, he’s an outstanding coach.”
Together at Rochdale for five years before a move to Barnsley, the rupture came in December 2012, when Hill was sacked with the Tykes bottom of the Championship.
Flitcroft was asked to take caretaker charge and – with Hill’s blessing – became full-time manager after a sensational run of results.
Though he would eventually suffer the same fate, Flitcroft was out of the game barely a week before Bury came calling, by which time Hill had already returned to Spotland. But for Hill, working 20 minutes down the road doesn’t change their relationship.
“We’re a partnership and that will remain the case whether we’re at different clubs or not,” he said.
“We still talk, we still bounce ideas off each other. And that will be the same this week as every other week.”
Flitcroft agrees. “It’s an every day relationship and that doesn’t change because of our jobs,” he said.
“In fact we’ll probably travel through from Bolton together to save a bit of petrol. This is League Two after all.
“There’s a game of football to win or to lose and we’ll both be trying our best to beat each other. But at the end of the day, it’s just a game.
“And at the end of it you go home to your family and friends, the people you love. That’s the same for a manager, a player or a fan. That’s what’s important.”
Maybe not the fans, if Hill is to be believed. “Me and Flicker are probably the sideshow,” he laughs. “The game is what matters to the supporters. It’s a derby and they want the bragging rights. They don’t care about us.”
Of course, with the Sky cameras in town, there is a danger that the paying public could be left short-changed. After all, no two managers in the country know each other as well as Flitcroft and Hill.
Is there anything trick they can pull which the other hasn’t got covered? “I’m not too sure to be honest,” says Hill. “But that doesn’t mean it will be dull. We both like to attack.”
And Flitcroft is convinced his old mate won’t simply park the bus. “It’s not Hilly’s style to cancel teams out,” he insists.
“He wants to go out and win games. He’s an expresser – he believes the game should be about entertainment and he wants his teams to express that. And that’s us as well. We’ve played 4-3-3 and gone after teams, just like we’ll go after them.”
And while the pair will be enemies on Friday, you get the feeling that it won’t be long before they are together in the dugout again.
“It’s something that I’d definitely be open-minded about,” says Hill, whose Rochdale lay third before the weekend.
“I know Flicker’s a manager now, but I think the biggest compliment I could possibly pay him is that I would definitely be willing to work for him as an assistant. I respect him as a coach and a manager.”
And it is a compliment that Flitcroft is all too happy to return. “After Barnsley, I had a week off, and we spent two days together,” said the former midfielder.
“He got me out of my house, took me to watch Rochdale play Bolton in a behind-closed-doors match. The magic was still there. And there is a magic when we’re together, that’s one thing I do know.
“I’ve realised what work is about. It isn’t money. It’s about enjoying who you work with and being happy in what you do.
“That’s true at Bury now. I’m loving being here. But it’s true with Keith too. Every day was a great day and I can see myself working as his assistant again for sure.”
So let battle commence? Hardly, it’ll be more like a love in at Gigg Lane. “Yeah,” laughs Flitcroft. “If the sun’s out, the fourth official can get his deckchair out!”