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Feature: Following in the footsteps

Football is in the DNA for some of our EFL starlets...

11 February 2022

Like father like son, or so the saying goes. Football is in the DNA for the next generation of the EFL’s shining stars who have stepped out from their families’ shadows and into their own spotlight.

In recent years, recognisable names have made a reappearance on the backs of jerseys, forcing fans to do a double take.

But it's clear that some of the latest group of EFL talent can't deny their legacy.

One of a parent's congenital duties is to stand by their children through the highs and lows. For James Hill, dad Matt Hill has been by his side through his short but promising career to date, from early rejections to an England Under-20s call-up.

“I’m grateful and lucky to have a father that’s played the game and had them setbacks before,” he acknowledged. “He helps me to keep going and remind myself of how far I’ve actually come.

“I chose Fleetwood because the pathway was very clear. When I was in the first-team from young, I got knocked back to the youth team and then got pushed back up again. For me, it was tough because I thought I was in a really good place at the time. I couldn’t really understand where I was going wrong.

“That helped my development to keep me pushing and keep me wanting more. It’s helped me get to the point I’m at now and not take everything for granted. My journey hasn’t been a straight line. For me, that was a major part in my career.”

The 20-year-old became Fleetwood’s youngest-ever debutant at the tender age of 16, rewarded with his first League start in April 2019 against Blackpool – one of his father’s former teams and the Club that rejected the defender as a youngster.

Although the game ended in a 2-1 defeat for the Cod Army at the hands of their local rivals, it marked a turning point for Hill, who turned out in front of a crowd of almost 12,000.

“I was there on a six month’s trial, but it didn’t go to plan," he recalled. "When I got that chance to play away in the Seaside Derby, for a youngster, being on that kind of stage is nerve-wracking but as soon as you get playing and you hear the crowd roar, it’s an incredible moment. That was really special.”

Those are the moments that can define a player’s career in its most premature stage.

For Jacob Greaves, winning promotion from the Sky Bet League One with his hometown team Hull City was his turning point.

“To get a medal around my neck to show for all my hard in that season was fantastic,” he explained. “I felt like a proper professional – someone that was respected around the training ground.

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“The first five games, I didn’t even see the bench – I was in the stands or watching the game from home. We got beat 4-1 away at Fleetwood, and the next week I played three games on the bounce, signed a new deal, and found myself out of the team and back in and played 40 games on the bounce.”

The Cottingham-born centre-back has travelled to the capital twice to see the Tigers play under the arch at Wembley Stadium and although he was forced to forfeit his season ticket to the East Yorkshire Club, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

He added: “When you’re playing, you’re still a fan and you love the Club, but that’s your job now. It gives you that extra 1% when you go onto the pitch, remembering who you’re playing for.”

Greaves, who turned 21 last September, had big shoes to fill. Dad Mark Greaves was on the books of the Tigers between 1996 and 2002, making over 200 appearances for the Club, and it was the former defender that first received word that his ex-employers were interested in bringing his eight-year-old offspring into their Academy fold.

Supporters of the Club were quick to note that the signing of the defender’s first professional contract in April 2019 made them feel somewhat grey-haired.

“I remember my dad got a call when we were in our old house and he told me,” he explained. “I was over the moon.

“Then I was offered the first deal when I was 16 or 17, and that was emotional because I’d just lost my grandad. I looked more like a footballer then because I didn’t really have a footballer’s body when I was about 14 or 15, which is something I joke about my mum and dad for – I say they didn’t feed me right!

“I don’t really see him as a person that used to play football – I just see him as my dad. I get a few of them saying, ‘I remember watching your dad play’, and I’m like, ‘oh really? That’s crazy’.”

His has been a natural progression between the three divisions. After heading out on loan to then-Sky Bet League Two outfit Cheltenham Town at the start of the 2019/20 campaign, Greaves returned to the MKM Stadium and claimed his place in the recently relegated Tigers’ back-line for their brief stay in League One. He has remained a mainstay since Hull reascended to the second-tier.

“I want to build my way up to the top,” he said. “It’s been a whirlwind. I went away to Cheltenham and lived by myself – well, with a family – when I was 18, and I loved it. I was out of my comfort zone, but I honestly loved it.

“I’ve got a bit more know-how, even though I’m only 21. I remember I was playing against Swindon and I went into the box for a corner, and the ‘keeper just stood right down the back of my ankle and all over my foot. I didn’t know what to do.”

Temporary additions can benefit players and Clubs alike in a number of ways.

Mattie Pollock, son of former Manchester City midfielder Jamie Pollock, also arrived in Gloucestershire with a lot to learn after the Robins offered to take the Watford starlet on loan for the duration of the 2021/22 season.

“It’s been a bit of an eye-opener,” he concurred. “I’m just looking at it like coming down and trying to help the boys, being in a different position where I’m not a permanent signing.

“It’s massive just to open your eyes to what professional football is. You’re going almost to war on a weekend and having to fight to get three points, whereas with the Under-23s, it’s like if you lose, you lose. If you lose in the League, it’s important to win because if you don’t, you’ll find yourself at the wrong end of the table and it’s a hard position to be in.

“When I signed for Watford, I knew I wasn’t just going to walk straight into the team. When they said about going on loan, I just wanted to go out and prove to people that I can play at a higher level.

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“If I went to the Championship, it may have been a bit too early. I went for League One and luckily, Cheltenham took me. Now, I think I’ve kind of repaid the trust that they put in me.”

The former Grimsby Town man, who has featured in 21 League outings for the Robins this season, made his Mariners bow three years ago, and admitted that he happened upon a slice of luck after Martyn Woolford was forced off the field.

“When I was a first-year scholar, there was a few injuries,” he continued. “I travelled down to a few games but never really got a chance, so I was just waiting. We had Exeter away and come the 50th minute, one of the lads got sent off and I was the only defender on the bench. The manager at the time was Michael Jolley and, luckily, he put his trust and belief in me. I went on and played the rest of that game, and that was the point in my career when it really took off.”

The 20-year-old, whose dad has travelled up and down the country to watch his son play almost every game this year, praised the role of his “old man” in his development.

He said: “Since I was a kid, all I’ve ever done is kick a ball. It’s probably the only thing I’m good at. I’ve enjoyed learning off my dad, and he’s helped me to get to where I am. When I was a kid, he was my coach, then I went to Academies and he watched me every week, so there was non-stop advice. Even now, he gives me a grilling after games. It’s what you need really. Without him being there, I don’t think I’d be playing at the level I am now.”

Hill opted for a similar path. Earlier in January, the defender caught the eye of Championship high-flyers AFC Bournemouth after spending the first half of the campaign impressing in League One. And he was well worth his move to the South Coast.

“I ended up making my 50th appearance for Fleetwood and was really starting to kick on,” Hill remarked. “It hit January and I got a really good move to where I am now at Bournemouth. The opportunity came across and I’d seen how they were developing their players and centre-halves that have come through. I heard that they were very interested but apart from that, I just kept my head down and kept going to try and leave everything to happen on its own.”

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Indeed, he could take some inspiration from fellow central defender Greaves, who has 29 appearances and counting for the Tigers this term. He has been instrumental in Hull’s recent upturn in form, including a slender victory over the Cherries as Greaves kept a clean sheet against the promotion contenders.

“This season has been the toughest to date with kind of not being winning games a lot of the time,” Greaves admitted. “When I was at Cheltenham and Hull last season, we were winning a lot of the time, so it’s kind of been having to deal with losing and we’ve been on a few losing runs this season.

“Each step up you take is a big step. I’ve felt the League One to Championship is a massive step. I enjoyed the one from League Two to League One, but then I was going into the best team in League One really, where we were doing really will every week and had a great squad and a great team. I’m a new boy to the League but I think I’ve done well.”

The Tigers’ Academy has spoken for itself in recent years. Hull can take credit for the likes of Keane Lewis-Potter and Brandon Fleming, whilst Hull-born defender Lewie Coyle made the switch to his hometown team last summer.

“They’re good pals of mine,” Greaves smiled. “I was at snooker yesterday with all three of them for the full day – Keano [Lewis-Potter] beat me in the final which was disappointing.

“Coyley [Coyle] had a fantastic career in what he’s done, playing for Leeds and being Fleetwood’s best player in League One for years, then to come into the Championship and the performances he’s put in this season are class. Everyone knows about Keano; he’s unbelievable and got so much ability with the world at his feet. Brandon goes under the radar really – I’ve grown up with him more than anyone at the Club and people forget how good of a player he is.

“I’ve seen a lot of good players come and go; we’ve had such a great success in the Academy and hopefully that can continue.”

And from what we’ve seen so far, the future is well and truly in safe hands if family ties are anything to go by.


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