OLD Jack Walker may have been a saviour for Blackburn Rovers. But for Keith Hill, the millions that yielded Premiership glory also spelled the end of his top-flight ambitions.
In 1991, Rovers finished 18th in the old Second Division and Hill, who had come through the ranks at Ewood Park, was a young centre-half homing in on 100 appearances.
But then came Walker, cash galore, Kenny Dalglish and promotion to the Premier League.
Hill lived the top-flight dream for just a month. In September 1992, he was offered to Plymouth as a makeweight in the deal that took Nicky Marker to Ewood and, along with good mate Craig Skinner, made the long trip south.
Not that he ever looked back with regret. “I had an absolutely brilliant time at Plymouth,” said Hill, who spent three years at Home Park and reached the Second Division play-off final in 1994.
“It was great being part of what I consider to be an exceptional side under Peter Shilton. We really should have been more successful than we were, but it was a great place to live and I still think a lot of the club.”
It was, though, a move to Rochdale in 1995 that would prove pivotal. For it was there that he met David Flitcroft, the man who would become his best mate and trusted sounding board.
When Hill retired in 2003, after spells at Cheltenham, Wrexham and Morecambe, he returned to Rochdale as director of youth. And when manager Steve Parkin was sacked, in December 2006, the then 36-year-old was handed the top job. His first move was to turn up at Flitcroft’s front door.
“I was happy running the family business,” said Flitcroft. “But Hilly said to me: ‘How would you handle it seeing someone else stood on the Wembley touchline with me on TV as my right-hand man?’ Those words were the deciding factor.”
Hill was as good as his word. Less than two years later, the double act – dubbed “Hillcroft” for their inseparability – were at Wembley as Rochdale lost 3-2 to Stockport in the League Two play-off final.
Two years after that, they won Dale’s first promotion in 36 years and then finished ninth in League One to seal a move to Champion-ship Barnsley.
As a manager, Hill is renowned for his no-nonsense honesty and his alchemy on tiny resources. At both Barnsley and Rochdale, he scoured the market for rough diamonds marooned and cast adrift by bigger clubs, then polished them into saleable assets.
Craig Dawson was a gangly teenager playing for Radcliffe Borough when Hill signed him in 2009. Four years on, the 23-year-old has played in the Olympics for Team GB and is currently on the books at Premier League West Brom.
“Keith Hill and Dave Flitcroft probably helped me get where I am today,” said Dawson earlier this year. “They taught me well and put a lot of one-to-one effort in with me. I still keep in touch with Hilly but basically just as friend.”
Likewise, Chris O’Grady was surplus to requirements at Oldham and bouncing from loan spell to loan spell when Hill spotted something that everybody else had missed.
“Being 6ft 3ins, I’d always been used as a target man,” explains O’Grady, now at Barnsley after a spell with Sheffield Wednesday.
“Everywhere I’d been, people just hit big, long balls and expected me to win it in the air. Keith and Flicker were the first people to see there was more to my game, and it was such a big thing to come to a club where the management team believed in me.”
Even Adam Le Fondre, whose talent needed little encouragement, says the time spent under Hill and Flitcroft was the most important of his career.
“I loved Rochdale and I owe them a lot,” says Le Fondre, who scored 34 goals in 96 games before joining Rotherham in 2009 and making it to the top flight with Reading last season.
“I cried when I left. I felt so at home there. Keith Hill, the staff and players were like family. The players were so close. Having played at that level has given me miles more of a grounding.”
Sacked by Barnsley in 2012 after successive relegation battles, Hill was succeeded by Flitcroft. So when he returned to Rochdale earlier this year, questions were asked as to whether he could go it alone. Those have been answered by a return to the summit of League Two.
“What I like about Keith as a manager is that he’s level-headed,” said Neil Warnock, who managed Hill at Plymouth.
“He manages with what he’s got, not what he’d like to have. That’s the sign of a top manager.”
Born: Bolton, 1969 (age 44)
Playing career: A centre-half or full-back, Hill came through the ranks at Blackburn, making his debut as a teenager and going on to play 89 games before joining Plymouth in 1992 as part of the deal that took Pilgrims skipper Nicky Marker to Ewood.
A big fan favourite at Home Park, he reached the Division Two play-off final in 1994 and, after relegation to the fourth tier in 1995, won promotion the following season.
Joined Rochdale in 1996 and spent five years at Spotland, making 176 appearances and scoring six goals.
Subsequent moves to Cheltenham and Wrexham were hampered by injury, and Hill eventually retired in 2003 after making 19 appearances for Conference side Morecambe.
Managerial career: Joined the coaching staff at Rochdale working his way up to become Director of Youth. Handed caretaker charge in December 2006 when Steve Parkin was sacked and, after taking the job permanently, guided Dale from 22nd to ninth.
Successive play-off defeats in 2008 and 2009 where then followed by automatic promotion with a third place finish, and the following year brought ninth place in League One, the club’s highest finish since 1970.
Lured away by Barnsley in June 2011, Hill helped the Championship minnows dodge relegation by a single place in his first season, before being sacked in December 2012 with the Tykes in 24th place.
Rejoined Rochdale almost immediately and secured a 12th-place finish.